Chadd Cripe

Buffalo Bulls’ Boise breakthrough was no fluke. ‘This is where we belong.’

Buffalo guard Davonta Jordan wrestles with Arizona’s Rawle Alkins in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament Thursday in Boise.
Buffalo guard Davonta Jordan wrestles with Arizona’s Rawle Alkins in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament Thursday in Boise. doswald@idahostatesman.com

The Buffalo Bulls were so much fun to watch Thursday night at Taco Bell Arena that it’s difficult to choose a favorite moment.

Was it 6-foot guard Wes Clark ripping away a rebound under the basket from Arizona’s 7-foot-1 NBA prospect, Deandre Ayton? “Just a scrappy moment,” Clark said. “This team is built on grit and playing hard and just fighting.”

Was it “pitbull” guard Dontay Caruthers fighting for a loose ball under the basket and chasing it, much of the way on the floor, nearly to midcourt?

Or maybe Montell McRae taking a charge and springing off the floor with a huge smile, running the length of the court in celebration so fast that teammates teased him in the locker room that it was the fastest 40-yard dash of his life?

All were examples of the spirited, feisty, confident, fun-loving Bulls, a No. 13 seed who will take on No. 5 Kentucky at 3:15 p.m. Saturday (CBS).

The play I’ll remember? It was one that meant nothing to the outcome but showed how thoroughly the Bulls beat the Arizona Wildcats, a trendy Final Four pick.

With less than 2 minutes left, Clark dribbled out the shot clock while the Boise crowd of 11,673 gave the Bulls a standing ovation. As the shot clock wound down, and with the crowd still on its feet, Clark swished a 3-pointer as if to say, “We can do this all day.”

The final score was 89-68, the only lopsided result on a highly competitive day of first-round games in Boise.

“It’s confidence, man,” Clark said. “We felt like we were better than those guys. We felt like there were some areas we could exploit. We just tried to focus in on going hard. If we were going to lose, we were going to leave it all out there.”

That combination of confidence and grit makes the Bulls (27-8) a dangerous opponent — one fully capable of beating an inexperienced Kentucky team that fell asleep defensively in the second half against Davidson.

Buffalo, which is making just its third NCAA Tournament appearance and now has its first win, has built at least a 10-point lead in 22 straight games — an incredible streak that shows the Bulls’ explosiveness.

The program was invisible nationally until coaches Bobby Hurley, now at Arizona State, and Nate Oats built it into a Mid-American Conference powerhouse.

Oats, who is in his third year as head coach and fifth at Buffalo overall, was Clark’s high school coach in Michigan just five years ago.

Oats told his players before they took the court against Arizona that it was time for the program’s breakthrough win.

“I told them: ‘Let’s just keep pounding the stone. We’ve been here twice. It’s about time we break that thing open and get a win, and I think tonight’s the night,’ ” Oats said. “... It’s huge. It puts you on a whole other level.”

The Bulls deserve to share the court with the likes of Arizona and Kentucky, Oats said. Many of his players could be playing at that level, he believes. Clark transferred to Buffalo after academic problems at Missouri and sat out nearly two years getting himself eligible to play one partial season for the Bulls.

Clark made his Bulls debut Dec. 19, the same day he got the final grade he needed from the fall semester. He missed the first 10 games.

“There’s some people that questioned whether I should even bring him in because we’d only get him for the one semester,” Oats said. “I think they can lay those questions to rest right now. I think he’s worth the year and a half we had him. I love the kid. He’s the best player I’ve ever coached.”

Clark, who is on track to graduate, hasn’t forgotten what Oats did for him. He also remembers what happened when he was in the Southeastern Conference, where Kentucky dominated his Missouri teams.

Both memories will drive him Saturday.

“(Oats) was there for the rescue — the whole Buffalo community was,” Clark said.

It’s that sense of community, both inside and surrounding the program, that the Bulls have raved about this week. The NFL’s Buffalo Bills even posted a message for the team on Twitter on Thursday before the game.

“We’re brothers — real brothers,” Clark said of his team. “You come to Buffalo, you see one of us, you’re going to see at least seven or eight, no matter where we are — if we’re going to the bathroom, you’re going to see seven or eight of us. That carries over to the court.”

Boise saw that Thursday night. So did Arizona.

These Bulls have the most fight of the eight teams that took the court Thursday. They’ve got swagger, too.

“We feel like this is where we belong,” Clark said.

Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman’s sports editor. Contact him at ccripe@idahostatesman.com and follow @chaddcripe on Twitter.

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