Kentucky’s advancement to the Sweet 16 turned sugary in the winning locker room Saturday. That’s where his teammates gave Hamidou Diallo a group hug.
“That’s just the type of team we are,” Diallo said. “We want to see everyone be successful, no matter who it is. If it’s a guy on the bench or the top guy.”
His season of personal turmoil might have made Diallo fit either description. The main man against Buffalo was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, whose 27 points sent Kentucky (26-10) on to Atlanta for a Sweet 16 game next Thursday.
But Gilgeous-Alexander paid tribute to Diallo, whose 22 points were one shy of the season-high 23 he scored against Monmouth on Dec. 9.
“Hami was amazing,” he said. “We definitely don’t win without Hami today. He was big, especially down the stretch.”
Hence the hug, which apparently was executed with enthusiasm.
“Hurt my neck a little bit …,” Diallo said with a smile. “I’ve been through so much adversity that I was just trying to go out there and just play the game. I’m not worried about numbers.”
Wenyen Gabriel, who posted a double-double (16 points and 12 rebounds), explained Diallo’s breakout game with a telling comment.
“He wasn’t thinking,” Gabriel said. “He just played his game.”
Asked to explain, Gabriel said, “You start thinking, ‘Oh, I haven’t scored yet. They didn’t swing me the ball.’ …
“A lot of that stuff goes out of your head at tournament time. You’re just trying to win the game.”
Buffalo, a self-described blue-collar team built on grit, vowed to direct their ball-pressure at Gilgeous-Alexander. This turned out to be a case of poking a stick at a Wildcat.
Gilgeous-Alexander, who scored 29 points in Thursday’s victory over Davidson, said his twin performances came against differing defenses. Davidson packed the lane and invited him to pass.
Buffalo played a more open-floor, high-paced game.
“When teams guard me like that, here I come,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.
With leading scorer Kevin Knox never in a comfortable rhythm, Diallo’s rise to the occasion was well-timed.
Buffalo (27-9) was led by Wes Clark, the former Missouri player who got a measure of the redemption he sought by scoring 26 points.
Kentucky broke the game open midway through the second half. With Gilgeous-Alexander and Diallo leading the way, a five-point lead became a 15-point bulge in less than five minutes.
Gilgeous-Alexander led Kentucky to a 51-42 lead at halftime. He scored 17 points in the first half, which was only two less than he had against Davidson on Thursday and more than he’d had in all but eight previous games this season.
UK needed the player called the “core” and “engine” of the team. Knox picked up three fouls in the whistle-filled opening 20 minutes. His second came with 7:42 left. He went to the bench, but when Buffalo rallied, Knox returned at the 4:33 mark. Fifty-six seconds later, Knox picked up his third foul when he tried to free himself on a drive by hooking a defender.
Perhaps Gilgeous-Alexander’s biggest basket came with 6:50 left in the half.
Buffalo had missed its first seven three-point shots, one reason Kentucky took several 11-point leads inside the first 12 minutes.
But the Bulls found the range, making five of their final 10 attempts to stay within striking distance. A three-pointer by CJ Massinburg with 8:08 left reduced Kentucky’s lead to 32-27. A roar filled the air, proving conclusively that Taco Bell Arena was no Rupp Arena West.
Gilgeous-Alexander had the perfect response. He hit a three-pointer from near the top of the key, then put a finger to his lips as if to shush the crowd.
“I’m a competitor,” he said of the gesture. “The crowd was pro-Buffalo. They were going crazy, as loud as I’ve heard them in a little bit. … I wanted to silence them.”
After UK restored a 13-point lead early in the second half, Buffalo charged. Clark’s pull-up jumper reduced the lead to 56-50 and prompted a Kentucky timeout with 16:47 left.
Three-pointers from Gabriel (right corner) and Diallo (left corner) gave UK breathing room. But Buffalo was not going away.
The Bulls got within 65-59. Then Gilgeous-Alexander re-emerged. More than once.
His patented driving layup followed by a three-point set shot eased the situation.
After Buffalo closed within 72-67, Gilegous-Alexander drove to a three-point play.
With Diallo as his wing man, the pair led UK to victory. All that was left to accomplish was the group hug.