BOISE — The name of the game this time of the year is survive and advance and that’s what Kentucky did in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament here Thursday night, March 16
The Wildcats (25-10) escaped a first-round upset with a 78-73 victory over Davidson, setting up a second-round encounter against Buffalo, which stunned No. 4 seed Arizona in the final of four first-round games at the Taco Bell Arena.
“We got a hall pass and made it out safe and sound,” Kentucky guard Quade Green said. “We came out and were playing but went on a drought and they were hitting threes in the second half. We stopped that a little bit and that’s what made us win.”
For a Kentucky team that has endured an up-and-down campaign, the Wildcats did just enough to remain in the field in a one-and-done environment. Kentucky coach John Calipari (pictured) applauded his team’s ability to handle the pressure despite many of his players competing in the tournament for the first time.
“It was a good one for this young team,” Calipari said. “First time they've been in the NCAA Tournament, not knowing what to expect. If you come out to play the way we did in the second half, our season will be over. The way they played in the second half, I thought defensively, to play a team that's as efficient and an execution team like Davidson, this young team did pretty good.”
Kentucky has won shootouts and grind outs this season but opted against getting into a 3-point shootout with the opposing Wildcats out West. Kentucky attempted just six three and didn’t make a trey in a game for the first time since 1988, a stretch of 1,047 games with a made 3-pointer, the longest such streak in the nation.
“We always knew we could win without (making) threes,” forward Wenyen Gabriel said. “We’re not going to outshoot a team like Davidson.”
Although the streak came to a close, it wasn’t a big deal to the players, many of whom were unaware of the rare feat.
“We still won,” Green said. “I don’t know what to say besides, imagine if we were hitting threes. It is March (and) every game you are going to play. It doesn’t matter, we can win or lose in this situation.”
Although Davidson was a tough out in the opener, Kentucky now shifts its attention to Buffalo, which didn’t just beat Arizona but rather defeated the other Wildcats soundly to reach the second round.
Much like Davidson, the Bison aren’t afraid or intimidated despite their mid-major status and have something to prove in the prestigious tournament.
“We felt like maybe we had a bad seed,” Buffalo coach Nate Oats said. “We thought we were better than that. Then I told the guys after the initial -- we'll try to get to the second weekend, whether you beat a 5 as a 12. And then a 4 or 4 first and a 5, let's go get what they gave us and get it done.”
And that’s just what the Bison did against an Arizona team that won both Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles this season.
“We did bust a lot of brackets,” Buffalo’s Jeremy Harris said. “We kind of knew that we could play with them. So we went out there with a game plan. We're really happy.”
So what type of team will Kentucky be playing Saturday?
“We've given ourselves a blue-collar mentality, we give out a hardhat after every game,” Oats said. “We have charges, floor dives, loose balls, deflections, we tally up the whole thing, and give the hard hat out to whoever wins the blue-collar points we call them.”
Much like the opener, UK is expecting a tough encounter.
“It will be a dogfight for 40 minutes,” Kentucky forward Nick Richards said.
That’s what it’s like playing basketball in March and Kentucky is one win away from making it to Atlanta.
The UK-Buffalo game will begin at 5:15 ET (CBS).
Keith Taylor is a veteran and award-winning sports writer based in Richmond, Ky. He has been covering University of Kentucky athletics for daily newspapers and web-site publications for the past 25 years. Taylor currently is sports editor for Kentucky Today and can be reached at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.
UK Athletics Photo (of Calipari) by Chet White