BOISE, Idaho – Well, it was a ball while it lasted. The UB men's basketball team had the week of its life, taking Buffalo fans, an adoring Boise crowd and much of the nation along for the ride. But as so often happens with Cinderella teams in the NCAA Tournament, reality came crashing down and put it to an abrupt end.
We enjoyed some unforgettable moments this week, with UMBC winning as a 16 seed, Marshall winning as a 13 and my Loyola guys making a run to the Sweet 16 as an 11. The UB men and women each reached the Round of 32 for the first time in program history, and Felisha Legette-Jack's squad isn't through just yet.
But it's over for the UB guys. Nate Oats and the Handsome Guys ran into an superior opponent in the second round, a Kentucky program that is the all-time NCAA leader in tournament appearances and wins. The Wildcats played like hoop royalty Saturday at Taco Bell Arena, outclassing the Bulls, 95-75.
UB never backed down. They hung around for a good 32 minutes and were down by only five with 8 minutes to go in the second half. But there's a merciless quality to this event, when one team's clear athletic superiority sets in and ends the dream.
After shooting 15 of 30 from 3 against Arizona, the Bulls went 7 for 31 against Kentucky. Part of it was the law of averages. More so, it was the length and skill of Kentucky's perimeter athletes. It tends to push shooters out a step, which makes a huge difference and can turn good outside shooters into average ones.
"It's very disappointing," said junior CJ Massinburg, who had 18 points and eight rebounds. "Trust me, it wasn't all happy talk back in that locker room. We were down on ourselves. It's going to hurt for about two weeks, but after it's all said and done, we can be happy for what we did for Buffalo as a group."
That's true enough. We don't get many of these runs in basketball. It would have been a huge story if UB became the seventh 13 seed ever to reach the Sweet 16 – especially on the same day the women won big as an 11 for their first NCAA win.
When they blew out Arizona, you wondered if the Bulls were one of those mid-majors who could measure up against the elites, the teams with future NBA players. But Kentucky wasn't Arizona. They had more athletes, mid-sized guys who turned out to be a matchup nightmare from the get-go.
Oats did his best to convince his players that Kentucky's freshmen were a bunch of callow kids who could be overcome in the big moments. But talent won out over experience. Being 22 doesn't matter when one audacious freshman is lobbing to another for a slam dunk. Nick Perkins and Jeremy Harris, two all-MAC players, were exposed against Kentucky, combining for 18 points and 0 for 9 from 3.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a 6-foot-6 freshman from Hamilton, Ont., was the best player in this subregional, a likely top 10 NBA pick. Gilgeous-Alexander scored 27 points on 10-for-12 shooting, plus six rebounds, six assists and two steals. He had an answer for virtually every UB run.
At times, he seemed to do whatever he liked. When you're 6-6, quick and have a mind for the game, it can seem easy at times. After making one 3, Gilgeous-Alexander put his finger to his lips, as if silencing the crowd. Oats had to know in his heart of hearts that Kentucky's freshmen would be a handful.
You can go a long way with frosh. Remember Michigan's Fab Five of a quarter century ago? Kentucky coach John Calipari has made four Final Fours with freshmen. The NCAA loves the fact that the NBA keeps the freshmen out of the pros for a year; that way, it has them for at least a year in their annual televised tournament showcase.
"We didn't do a very good job of keeping the ball out of the lane," Oats said. "That has a lot to do with them. They're pretty good athletes. There's a reason three of them are supposed to go in the first round."
Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo are all projected as first-round picks. Diallo had 22 points and threw down some vicious dunk. He had a rebound slam over Nick Perkins and Dontay Caruthers. Diallo dunked to make it 93-73 and struck a defiant pose in front of the band.
Calipari apologized for his player's gesture. Oats said there was no need to apologize. Of course, Oats had apologized to Calipari before the game for accusing him of whining about his team being so young.
"He said he didn't take it the wrong way," Oats said. "I've got a ton of respect for him. Used to go to his program in Memphis. We ran the dribble-drive in Romulus, because of what he did at Memphis. We had a good talk before the game."
The 'Cats are young. It's no revelation. But every coach should have such a youth problem. Kentucky had 22 layups or dunks against a UB defense that had stifled Arizona. It's tough to win giving up 22 easy hoops. Over the years, I've seen countless examples of our teams getting exploited inside in the big games.
Having it happen against the sport's most storied program is nothing to be ashamed of. UB went as far as could be expected. No 13 seed has beaten the 4 and 5 seed and reached the Sweet 16 since Bradley in 2006. The Bulls put Buffalo basketball on the map for three unforgettable days.
"On top of us being good-looking, we did play hard and had some fun," said Clark, who was brilliant with 26 points and six assists in his final college game. Clark waited 22 months to play his final year for Oats, his high school coach, after leaving Missouri of the SEC. He still hasn't beaten Kentucky.
"It was phenomenal for me," Clark said. "I know we have a loss right now. But it's definitely a win for me. I'd never been to an NCAA Tournament, and to get here and win a game, it's phenomenal, a great feeling."
A lot of fans who watched in Boise, back home and around the country, would certainly agree.