As one of the country’s most successful, and most hated, programs, the Kentucky men’s basketball team had no problem adopting the villain role.
The fifth-seeded Wildcats overcame a partisan crowd and held off several second-half runs to rout No. 13 Buffalo 95-75 on Saturday at Taco Bell Arena, punching their ticket to the Sweet 16 next week in Atlanta.
Freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had a hand in everything for Kentucky, pouring in a game-high 27 points on 10-for-12 shooting while adding six rebounds and six assists. He even pulled a bit of crowd control, turning and shushing the Boise crowd after sinking a first-half 3-pointer, setting off a chorus of boos.
“We all love playing when the crowd is against is,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We love proving people wrong, and that’s what we did today.”
Buffalo shot its way past No. 4 seed Arizona in the first round. But Kentucky made sure the Bulls couldn’t repeat the upset, using its superior size, strength and athleticism to impose its will on both ends of the floor.
After draining 15-of-30 3-pointers to knock off Arizona, the Bulls were held to a 7-for-31 (23 percent) performance behind the arc by Kentucky.
“Our identity is defense,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “That’s the first thing we focus on going into every game. We know that if we shut down the other team, we have enough talent to score as many points as we want.”
The Wildcats certainly did, getting to the rim at will and throwing down an array of highlight-reel dunks. Twenty-two of Kentucky’s 36 field goals came via a layup or a dunk. And freshman Hamidou Diallo put down two dunks that left even the most diehard Buffalo fans stunned.
The first saw the 6-foot-5 freshman leap over two Buffalo defenders for a putback dunk in the first half. Diallo then put an exclamation point on the victory with a breakaway, left-handed windmill dunk that stretched the lead to 20 with 1:41 left.
Diallo finished with 22 points and eight rebounds.
“You saw what he is and what he’s capable of today,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
Calipari complained loudly about Kentucky’s tournament draw, which saw the Wildcats placed in a region that included the No. 1 overall seed, Virginia, and the likely No. 1 pick in June’s NBA Draft in Arizona freshman Deandre Ayton and came with a road trip to Boise, which he compared to Anchorage, Alaska.
But after No. 16 seed UMBC upset Virginia in the first round and No. 11 Loyola-Chicago advanced to the Sweet 16, Kentucky’s path to the Final Four busted wide open.
“I don’t watch too many of the games, but when you hear about the upsets, it tells us to lock in more and focus because anything can happen,” Kentucky sophomore Wenyen Gabriel said.
Buffalo pulled within four points early in the second half and cut the deficit to five with 8:10 left. But the Bulls, who earned the first NCAA Tournament win in program history Thursday, ran out of gas and Kentucky ran away with the win.
“We didn’t go back in the locker room and it was all happy talk. We were down on ourselves,” Buffalo point guard Wes Clark said. “But at the end of the day, after all is said and done, we can be proud of what we did for Buffalo and as a collective group.”