BOISE, Idaho – The moment when I really began to believe it could happen came early in the second half. Arizona, which had trailed by two at halftime, seemed determined to assert itself as the favorite coming out of the locker room.
But when UB scored on the break early in the second half, announcing that it had no fear of the mighty Pac-12 favorites, Sean Miller called a timeout to settle his team down. When Miller called it, just before he'd have gotten a TV timeout, UB coach Nate Oats pumped his fist in delight as his players gathered around him.
"Yeah, it was like, 'We've got this thing,'" Oats said in the giddy locker room after UB's astonishing 89-68 victory over Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night at Taco Bell Arena.
If the world wasn't aware before that the Bulls could play with any team in the country, they are now. Oats had said all along that this year's UB team was better than the two that made the NCAA Tournament in 2015 and 2016. They left no doubt in a remarkable and convincing performance on the sport's biggest stage.
It's one thing for a No. 13 seed to pull an upset in the first round. It had happened 26 times before since the tourney went to 64 teams in 1985. But to blow out Arizona, a No. 4 seed that had been picked by some experts to win the national title this year? When it was happening, it bordered on the surreal.
"It definitely is," said senior guard Wes Clark, who continued his MVP-level play from the Mid-American Conference tournament in Cleveland with 25 points and seven assists. "You can't overlook how exciting this is, or how impressive it is to people who don't know about us.
"But myself, I've played at a high level and I've seen good teams, teams that could beat Missouri," Clark said, referring to the school he transferred to UB from. "I felt the cohesiveness. I felt like this group was special in that kind of way, that we could be great."
They were certainly great for one night in Boise, when the neutral crowd embraced them and UB fans around the globe and in Buffalo had to be exulting in seeing the Bulls perform so well as the sports world focused on the NCAA Tournament.
They were the better team, by far, in the biggest win by a Buffalo-area college team since St. Bonaventure won to get to the Final Four in 1970. Go ahead, pinch yourself. They'll play Kentucky here at 5:15 p.m. Saturday for a chance to reach the Sweet 16 in Atlanta next weekend.
Let me pause for a moment to point out that I've been covering our men's college basketball teams for 28 years, and it's the first time I've been able to type that sentence. They're playing for a chance to reach the Sweet 16.
"I don't think there's any reason we can't beat Kentucky," Clark said. "We got to lock in defensively and limit turnovers. It can be our downfall if we turn it over and get a little excited and let those guys get out in transition. But if we can keep it in the halfcourt and play the way we normally do, it can be a good game, a close game."
Why not? Typically, a double-digit seeds pulls a first-round upset and comes back to Earth in the second round. It's rare for one to reach the Sweet 16. But it's also rare for an underdog to beat an elite school in such convincing fashion. When Clark hit a three-pointer (UB went 15 of 30 from 3), to put UB up by 25 points in the closing moments, Oats cleared his bench, as if this were some MAC blowout at Alumni Arena in February.
Oats laughed at the memory. "I told the ref, 'If we score here, I'm calling timeout to gets subs in.' I don't want anyone to get hurt in the last minute. We've got a chance to beat Kentucky!"
Buffalo hoop fans had waited a long time for this night. I had waited all day for the upset. This had promised to be the most compelling of the eight subregionals, with two 12-5 matchups and two other games between fourth and 13th seeds, including the final game of the night between UB and Arizona.
But the major powers kept dodging the bullet. Gonzaga survived a scare against UNC-Greensboro after trailing in the last two minutes. Ohio State broke a late tie after blowing a 10-point lead against South Dakota State. Davidson gave Kentucky's fabulous freshmen all they wanted before falling short.
That left only UB, which seemed like the longest shot of all against Arizona, an enormously talented team with 7-1 DeAndre Ayton, supposedly the best player in the country. The early games reminded us that the underdogs generally fade, as superior talent and height dash most upset dreams.
But sometimes, an underdog is more physically capable than the seeds would suggest. You could sense early the the Bulls could play with the Wildcats. Their guards were quicker. They felt they could play the audacious style that made them the seventh-highest scoring team in the nation. You could see the doubt in Arizona's eyes.
At all levels of basketball, you have a great chance if you have three reliable scorers. UB had three who played their finest game in the biggest moment. CJ Massinburg, who had scored two points in the MAC final, hit his first three-point attempt and finished with 19 points.
Clark repeatedly beat Arizona's defenders to the hoop. Where the vaunted Ayton was, I have no idea. As Ikenna Smart had said on Wednesday, the kid is a freshman. And he played like one. Jeremy Harris, who could play in any league in America, scored 23 points and had seven rebounds. He and Clark were the best players on the floor.
You kept waiting for Arizona to make its big run, the way so many top teams do in the tournament. It never happened. They tried late in the first half, but Clark, who shot 10 for 15 from the floor, nailed a three on the break to give UB a 40-38 halftime lead. Oats was complaining to the officials on the way to the dressing room, coaching every second on night when he thoroughly outcoached the embattled Miller.
The only run was by UB, which broke open a close game in the second half and coasted. They were the same team they've been all year, audacious, confident, unrelenting – unafraid to push the pace against anyone. Ayton had 14 points and 13 rebounds, but he wasn't the best player in the building, never mind the land.
"I told Ikenna, Ayton was in high school last year," Oats said. "I told our guys that. This kid was in high school last year. We're grown men. He might be the No. 1 pick and he might deserve it, but he was still in high school last year."
Smart, who had trash-talked Ayton, scored on a reverse. Massinburg knocked in a three-pointer – off the backboard. When UB stretched its lead past 10, the crowd was roaring for them, which happens on a neutral floor when an underdog is making history, and the hoop gods appeared to be with them, too.
It was 70-57, a surreal moment. Not only were the Bulls beating the Wildcats, they were dancing on their heads. There were still nine minutes to go, but it was their game. The question now was whether they would have the poise to close it out. There was no need to worry. They pulled away.
For one night, UB was the darling of the basketball world. It was a great night for Buffalo, a crowning achievement for all the mid-majors who never got here. Did I just use a line from "Hoosiers?" Well, it was that sort of game.
Oats was smiling ear-to-ear in the locker room afterwards. I suspect the UB administration is relieved to have gotten his signature on that five-year contract last week. It was the night of his life. He was looking at his cell phone and laughing as he prepared to go live on ESPN.
"I've got 250 texts," he said. "My phone can't even keep up. It doesn't even say it's an unread text anymore. I must have broken my phone or something. I don't have time to respond. Let everybody back in Buffalo know I'll respond when the season's over."
As crazy as it sounds, that might not be for awhile. UB just blew out Arizona in the Big Dance. Don't tell them it has to end Saturday.