For one Thursday night in March, Nate Oats and the Buffalo Bulls basketball program stole hearts of upset-lovers, captivated the nation, and stamped their name into NCAA Tournament lore with their immaculate three-point shooting, eliminating (4) Arizona in an 89-68 beatdown.
But the Bulls’ March Madness run, which included the program’s initial tournament victory, came to a bitter halt in Boise. The Kentucky Wildcats, who have competed in four Final Fours in the John Calipari era, inched closer to their fifth, knocking off Buffalo, 95-75.
Unlike the Arizona game, (13) Buffalo was forced to play catch-up the entire 40-minute sequence. The 3-point shooting centric offense, which played heavily into the Bulls’ favor on Thursday night, started out as flat as possible. Buffalo frustratingly watched its first seven attempts clank off the iron of the rim and often land in Kentucky’s hands on the rebound. Less than nine minutes in, the Wildcats already exerted their dominance by jumping out to a double-digit lead.
But the 3-point avalanche eventually commenced and Buffalo’s offense entered a familiar rhythm. Oats’ squad finished the first half with an impressive 42 points. One problem — Kentucky’s size-advantage played an integral role in the paint and Buffalo’s defense could not contain the Wildcats near the basket. The SEC champions dunked, laid it up, and dropped 51 on the hopeful 13-seed in just 20 minutes.
In the 21-point triumph over Arizona, Buffalo proved that second halves are its strongpoint. Enter Wes Clark. The only senior who saw the floor on Saturday entered a scoring rampage and proved unstoppable for a great portion of the second half versus a Kentucky defense that features several future NBA stars. Clark, a member of Oats’ roster at Romulus High School and the star of the MAC Tournament, pitched in a team-high 26 points for the Bulls in the season finale.
Riding Clark’s offensive outburst, Buffalo cut what was a 13-point second half deficit to as little as four points with 15:32 remaining. But behind every failed upset bid is a player that spoils that bid. And that player was former five-star recruit and freshman shooting guard Hamidou Diallo. Diallo contributed 22 points for Kentucky, including a deadly three from the corner to stave off the 13-seed’s second half run.
Buffalo continued to fight back, and at one point with under eight minutes to go, Jeremy Harris missed an open 3-pointer which would have sliced Kentucky’s lead to just two. Following the Harris miss, the Wildcats launched an 8-0 run to snatch the game away from the Bulls’ hands and stay in command with a 13-point edge. Then, the bad turned to ugly, and Kentucky exceeded the 90-point mark. Buffalo was left in the dust with just 75 on the scoreboard at the finish.
The larger Wildcats out-rebounded (42-30) and out-blocked (4-1) Buffalo, drawing plenty of fouls in the paint from tipoff to the final buzzer. Buffalo relied too heavily on the three-ball — a strategy which succeeded against Arizona but backfired against its second Wildcat opponent. It finished the evening 7-of-31 (22.6%) from long range, firing more than double the 3-pointers attempted by Kentucky.
Buffalo finishes its season at 27-9 — the most wins and fewest losses for the program in modern-day history. The team attained plenty in 2018, including its third tournament appearance/MAC tournament title in four seasons and an elusive March Madness victory. The future looks bright as head coach Nate Oats also received a 5-year contract extension, good through the 2022-23 hoops season.
Kentucky continues its hopeful Final Four run and will battle the winner of Sunday’s matchup between (9) Kansas State-(16) UMBC in the Sweet Sixteen in an upset-filled South Region.