BOISE, Idaho (AP) — It’ll take more than experience, grit and a double-digit dream to knock these kids from Kentucky out of the NCAA Tournament.
Namely, it’ll take someone to slow down Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and his fellow freshmen, who are zeroing in on the finer points of the John Calipari Hoop School at precisely the right time.
Kentucky put an end to any upset talk on its watch Saturday, getting 27 points, six rebounds and six assists from Gilgeous-Alexander in a 95-75 pullaway from scrappy, veteran 13th-seeded Buffalo.
Gilgeous-Alexander went 10 for 12 and made both of his 3-point attempts to send fifth-seeded Kentucky (26-10) to the Sweet 16 for the second straight season.
“We are inexperienced and all that stuff,” Calipari said. “But I’ve got good players.”
Coming into the day, the basketball world was still reverberating from Maryland-Baltimore County’s 16 vs. 1 stunner over Virginia the night before. Villanova and Duke both rolled in their games early; the evening slate started with Kentucky, and the Wildcats, with their all-freshman starting lineup, trailed only once: 2-0.
“We hear about those upsets,” said Wenyen Gabriel, one of Kentucky’s rare sophomores, who finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds. “It just tells us to lock in some more, and focus.”
This didn’t turn into a runaway until the last 7 minutes.
Buffalo (27-9), which got here with a 21-point blowout over No. 4 Arizona, twice trimmed a double-digit lead to five midway through the second half.
Gilgeous-Alexander answered both times — once with a 3-pointer to extend the lead back to eight, then again a few minutes later with a three-point play that started a 12-2 run and put the game away.
“We didn’t have an answer for him,” Bulls coach Nate Oats said. “He was a major problem for us defensively.”
Not the only one.
Hamidou Diallo also went off — going 9 for 12 and scoring all but four of his 22 points in the second half while the Wildcats were putting it on cruise.
The team that went 0 for 6 from 3-point range Thursday in its win over Davidson, snapping a record streak of 1,047 games with at least one 3, went 7 for 15 in this one. Buffalo also made seven — but it took 31 attempts.
“There’s a reason three of those guys are supposed to go in the first round, and a couple more are going to be pros,” Oats said of Kentucky’s NBA draft prospects. “Cal’s got them playing really well at the right time of year.”
The Wildcats have won nine of 10 since snapping a four-game losing streak in February.
And about that UMBC win — it could impact Kentucky more than you know. When Tennessee lost a one-point game to Loyola-Chicago shortly after Kentucky wrapped up Saturday, the Wildcats found themselves seeded behind only No. 2 Cincinnati in the South. There’s a possibility they could make the Final Four without having to face even one single-digit seed.
“Coach has been telling us this whole week that you never know what can happen in this tournament,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We don’t focus on any other team. We just try to get better every game and put it on the next opponent.”
Senior Wes Clark had an electric day for the Bulls again, but it wasn’t enough. He finished with 26 points but closed his career at 0-5 against the Wildcats. The first four losses came before he transferred from Missouri.
NO OFFENSE TAKEN
Oats said he apologized to Calipari for saying the Kentucky coach “whined” all the time about having so many freshmen. Both coaches said it was overblown and there were no hard feelings. “There’s nothing there. He’s a great guy and a heck of a coach,” Calipari said.
Calipari on getting flak from players who now make millions in the NBA, but who he wouldn’t start, or give enough touches to, when they were at Kentucky: “You ask DeMarcus (Cousins) or Anthony (Davis), ask Devin (Booker). He’s still mad I didn’t start him. Devin Booker had 70 in a NBA game and I didn’t start him. Or Eric Bledsoe. He says ‘You held me out.’ I say, ‘You’re doing all right. Will you buy dinner?'”
The Wildcats play the winner of Sunday’s game between Kansas State and UMBC in Atlanta next Thursday.
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