Men's Basketball

Kentucky gets first-half scare from Buffalo, then pulls away to win, 71-52

Kentucky forward Alex Poythress made an emphatic dunk in the second half Sunday against the University of Buffalo. UK won, 71-52.
Kentucky forward Alex Poythress made an emphatic dunk in the second half Sunday against the University of Buffalo. UK won, 71-52. Herald-Leader

Earlier in the week, Kentucky Coach John Calipari said his team needed adversity. The Cats got it one game earlier than expected. Not against No. 5 Kansas on Tuesday, but against No. 148 Buffalo on Sunday.

UK won 71-52, but there was considerable toil and trouble en route.

The Cats trailed at halftime, had the fast-break component of their offense almost entirely defused and had to overcome their own three-point shooting, uh, exuberance.

After using a 16-2 second-half run to win, UK players echoed Calipari's affection for such a test.

"Just shows what we're about," freshman Tyler Ulis said. "We're just going to fight till the end. Play hard, no matter what."

Kentucky did not fight from the beginning against an opponent ranked No. 148 by numbers guru Ken Pomeroy. That Buffalo needed a shot in the final minute to beat visiting South Dakota State 69-67 in its opening game Friday surely further dulled UK's competitive spirit.

"They probably thought we were some small school," said Justin Moss, the Bulls' inside presence at 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds. "I think we made a statement to everybody around the country."

UK's platoon system and its aura of invincibility got set aside in the first half.

Buffalo controlled the tempo throughout the opening 20 minutes and led 38-33 at intermission.

"Proud of winning the hustle game early in the first half with loose balls, charges, gritty play," Buffalo Coach and ex-Duke star Bobby Hurley said.

Among the head-scratchers, Kentucky did not score in transition in the entire first half. Kentucky didn't get a fast-break basket until the first minute of the second half when freshman Trey Lyles stole a pass against UK's press and drove to a dunk.

Kentucky didn't get another fast-break basket until an Alex Poythress dunk with 12:39 remaining. That was part of the belated 16-2 breakout. Overall, UK had only eight points in transition.

"That was the key part of the game because you know they like to run up and down," Moss said. "Making them play half-court gave us an advantage."

Although he emphasized keeping Kentucky in a half-court game, Hurley expressed surprise at how well his team got back on defense.

"I never thought we would only give up eight points," he said. "I'm proud of our guys. We were all over them about doing that. I knew that was going to be a major problem. ... (The Cats) are exceptional at changing ends on the floor with their athleticism."

Another major problem: UK's size. "Kind of overwhelming at times," Hurley said.

Despite starting no one taller than 6-8, Buffalo kept Kentucky away from the basket. Until the 16-2 breakout run, Buffalo had as many two-point baskets as Kentucky: 10 each.

Kentucky, which only outscored Buffalo 30-22 in the paint, helped the Bulls by launching 14 three-point shots, twice as many as Buffalo took, in the first half.

When asked about UK shooting so many threes, Dakari Johnson said, "That's what (the coaches) stressed at halftime. That we're not that type of team."

Buffalo took only one fewer two-point shot in the first half, a reason for this surprising statistic: the Bulls made more free throws (10) than UK attempted (nine) in the opening 20 minutes.

Hurley nodded when asked whether he welcomed UK's shooting from three-point range.

"We knew we'd have our hands full in the paint with their size," he said. "They have guys who can shoot. But, obviously, their strength is their power in the paint."

Belatedly, UK remembered. The 16-2 breakout included only one three-point basket. The Cats took only six shots from beyond the arc in the second half.

"When you have a bunch of scorers (or) people who can score the ball, when you have a shot, you're going to take it," Ulis said in explaining the many three-point attempts. "But (Calipari) wants us to execute. And we have to start locking in and feeding the post."

Calipari applauded how Kentucky executed down the stretch. The Cats made six of their last nine shots, and committed only one turnover in the final 12-plus minutes.

"That's ridiculous," Calipari said, meaning it was good, "especially when I was out there with three freshmen doing it."

As tests go, Buffalo presented a surprise pop quiz. UK passed.

"It shows what kind of person you are," Johnson said. "Are you going to fold at the end of the game? Or are you going to step up and really help your teammates?"

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader