LEXINGTON, Ky. – Fourteen minutes into Sunday’s game, University at Buffalo forward Justin Moss took a sharp bounce pass from Lamonte Bearden and made a leaping, one-handed, tomahawk dunk over Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein.
Moss is 6-foot-7. Cauley-Stein is a 7-footer who is likely to be a first-round NBA draft pick next spring.
“I got a great opportunity and took my chance,” Moss said. “I guess you could call it a statement.”
No guessing about it. It was the statement play in a statement game for UB.
If UB plays anything this season like it did in losing to the No. 1-ranked Wildcats, this is going to be a mighty good year for the Bulls.
The final score alone - 71-52 – was a moral victory. But that did not tell the tale.
A stunned crowd of 22,175 at famed Rupp Arena watched in silence as UB walked off at halftime with a 38-33 lead.
The Bulls still were up, 45-44, with 13:30 to play. They were within four, 51-47, with 10:20 left. They were within 11 with five minutes left.
This is a UB team that lost its three best players from last year. It’s a Kentucky team that returns 60 percent of last year’s national runner-up squad and has nine McDonald’s high school All-Americas.
“Are you kidding?” essentially was the reaction from Kentucky coach John Calipari to UB coach Bobby Hurley after the game.
“I told Bobby after,” Calipari told reporters, “he lost three of his guys, his starters, and had two starters back, has pretty much a brand new team. And they came in here and did that? Wow! Hats off to ’em. … I coach young teams. For him to do that the second game out, amazing stuff.
“If that’s who they are in their league, they’re going to be really, really good.”
UB’s players obviously did not read the press clippings of Kentucky’s stars before the game.
On UB’s first possession, 6-3 guard Jarryn Skeete hit a three-pointer on 6-6 guard Aaron Harrison, a preseason first-team All-American. That’s Aaron Harrison, the guy who hit winning three-pointers in Kentucky’s Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four victories last season.
On UB’s second possession, freshman point guard Lamonte Bearden drove hard down the lane and drew a foul from 6-6 Andrew Harrison, the all-Southeastern Conference guard.
When Skeete hit a 16-footer and a 20-footer back-to-back to give UB a 12-10 lead, it was obvious the Bulls were not backing down.
“We’ve got a tough team; we don’t back down from nobody,” said Moss.
“Intimidation – that’s not something in my vocabulary,” said UB guard Rodell Wiggington. “But Skeete making some big plays kind of made the expectations bigger for us.”
Skeete, a junior from Ontario, led UB with 16 points. Wigginton, a 6-5 junior college transfer from Michigan, had 15.
Moss, UB’s best player, managed eight points on 3 of 13 shooting. He took mostly good shots, but Kentucky’s front line simply is too tough to score against.
Hurley was proud of his team.
“This had the feel of an NCAA Tournament game,” he said. “They’re at the top of the food chain. For us to be able to be competitive, and to feel like we were outplaying them for a large portion of the game, gives our guys confidence.
“I’m proud of winning the hustle game early in the first half, loose balls, charges, gritty play.”
Among the reasons UB hung with Kentucky:
• The Bulls guards – Bearden, Skeete, Shannon Evans and Wiggington – handled the ball well and showed quickness in creating some good shot opportunities. UB shot 44.4 percent from the field in the first half and made just seven first-half turnovers.
“They’ve got a lot of big guys, and coach just told me every time I go to the hoop make sure I hit a body,” said Wiggington, who was 9 of 11 from the foul line. “So that’s what I tried to do, create contact and get to the free-throw line.”
• UB’s low-post players – mostly Moss and Will Regan – had active hands and did just enough to keep Kentucky’s massive post players from dominating.
“We tried to mix up some 2-3 zone, which we don’t play that often, just for this game, and also played man just to give them different looks,” Hurley said. “Lucky for us they were not hitting their three-point shot in the first half.”
• Kentucky didn’t pound the ball inside enough early. The Wildcats were 3 of 14 from three-point range in the first half.
“We came out sluggish, and they were playing harder than us,” said Kentucky 7-footer Dakari Johnson.
“We needed this,” Calipari said. “We needed a team that could beat us on the dribble, that wasn’t afraid, that played physical, that had an inside presence.”
Hurley wrote “0-0” on the locker room blackboard at halftime.
But Kentucky turned up its defense in the second half and held UB to 14 points after intermission.
“The ability of their bigger players to play great defense away from the basket kind of was overwhelming at times in the second half,” Hurley said.
“Being able to block shots makes it hard,” Calipari said. “You can say just drive the ball. But you’re looking on the two 7-footers under there and a 6-10 guy.”
UB made just 4 of 19 second-half shots. Kentucky made 13 of 26.
Both teams play again on Tuesday. UB (1-1) visits Texas-Arlington. Kentucky (2-0) visits Kansas.