By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky has been waiting for this Hamidou Diallo.
After an up and down season where he often had trouble making shots or seeming in sync with the team’s flow, Diallo had his best game at the best time for Kentucky Saturday.
He had 22 points, eight rebounds, two blocks, one steal and one assists in a 95-75 win over Buffalo — the team that dismantled Arizona two days earlier in the NCAA Tournament South Region.
“You saw what he is and what he’s capable of today. All year we were trying to figure this out. It just took us a long time,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “And Hami is still figuring some things out.”
Diallo has learned to be patient and find a way to work through his weaknesses.
“We are playing with a bunch of talented players. Every night can’t be your night,” Diallo said.
Kentucky had a 13-point lead before Buffalo cut it to four points early in the second half. The lead was just 67-62 with 9:43 to play but the Cats ran way behind the play of Diallo and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — 27 points (10-for-12 shooting, 5-for-7 free throws), six rebounds, six assists, two steals.
The Wildcats trailed for just 15 seconds in the game after trailing only 1 minute, 6 seconds in Thursday’s win over Davidson.
“We are a bunch of competitors. We all love playing with the crowd against us and proving people wrong,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.
Calipari said Gilgeous-Alexander just continues to get better and enjoy it even more.
“His spirit starts moving us that way. He was the one guy having fun. Two months ago everything was a struggle for this team,” Calipari said. “Just be like him. He’s playing himself into being one of the best players in the country.”
After not making a 3-point shot for the first time in 30 years in the win over Davidson, Kentucky went 7-for-15 from 3-point range Saturday. Wenyen Gabriel was 3-for-5 and Gilgeous-Alexander 2-for-2. Diallo also made the only 3-pointer he attempted.
“The last 10 games we’re shooting 40 percent from the 3-point line. Against Davidson we only took six. And I’m still trying to figure out, how did we only take six? Was it their defense? Was it what we did? Was it that we were trying to be aggressive? I don’t know,” Calipari said.
“But we want to take between 15 and 18 3’s. We’re not taking 30. Any time in the history of my career my team takes 30 shots from the 3, we lose. We don’t win those games. We’re not relying on 3’s, but we shoot 40 percent. It’s a different — I mean, some guys are going to shoot 30 and that’s how they coach and that’s great. It’s not what I do.”
Buffalo blistered Arizona from 3-point range. Against UK, it was 7-for-31 from long range.
“We wanted to make them to shoot a lot more than six (like they did against Davidson) but we didn’t want them to make half of them. I think their length bothered us,” Buffalo coach Nate Oats said.
Gabriel had 16 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks and one steal in 33 minutes that UK really needed because of Sacha Killeya-Jones’ foul trouble, Nick Richards’ ineffective play and Jarred Vanderbilt’s injury that kept him from playing again.
“Wenyen had to conquer himself. He’s doing it,” Calipari said. “It’s rewarding to see individuals do what they are doing but it’s also rewarding to see they understand they need each other.”
Gabriel admitted that No. 1 Virginia’s stunning loss to 16 seed University of Maryland-Baltimore County on Friday got UK’s attention.
“We hear about those upsets and it just tells us to lock in some more,” Gabriel, who was 5-for-11 from the field and 3-for-5 from 3-point range, said.
Buffalo players said Friday that UK could not keep up with them in transition and that the Cats were basically weak inside. Kentucky had 22 baskets inside on dunks and layups.
“It was bad. They got it in the lane too much. They hit the 3’s. They didn’t shoot enough of them. We wanted to keep it out of the lane and make them shoot more 3s. We got outrebounded by 12, too,” Oats said.
“Three things had to happen (for Buffalo to win): We had to keep turnovers down, keep them out of transition, but defensively we had to keep the ball in the lane, keep them off the O (offensive) boards. They were in the lane all night. We didn’t do what we were supposed to. They’re just that good. We’re a pretty good defensive team, but not — we weren’t good enough tonight and they are a great offensive and defensive team, as well.”
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Kentucky will advance to the South Region semifinals in Atlanta where the Cats will the winner of Sunday’s Kansas State-UMBC game. Loyolay-Chiago is already also in the South Region semifinals in the opposite bracket after beating No. 3 seed Tennessee Saturday and No. 2 seed Cincinnati needs a win Sunday to also reach Atlanta.