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Ashley Scoby: Buffalo provides Wildcats with what they needed, but not what they expected

Buffalo led Kentucky by five at halftime and provided a good challenge for the No. 1 Wildcats, head coach John Calipari said (UK Athletics Photo/Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports)

Buffalo led Kentucky by five at halftime and provided a good challenge for the No. 1 Wildcats, head coach John Calipari said (UK Athletics Photo/Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports)


With 26 seconds remaining in Kentucky’s game against Buffalo on Sunday, Tyler Ulis tossed up a lob that looked like it was going nowhere, until Trey Lyles floated in to throw it down, slapping an exclamation mark on Kentucky’s 71-52 victory.

That sounds about right, given Kentucky’s No. 1 national ranking and its nine McDonald’s All-Americans.

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Nearly everything else leading up to that moment, though? Not quite what the Wildcats were expecting out of out-sized Buffalo.

The Bulls took a 12-10 lead into the first media timeout of the day, after Jarryn Skeete nailed both of his three-pointers. Lucky, right? Kentucky would surely pull away quickly from a pesky Buffalo team that just started quickly.

Not really. With 15:04 remaining, Dakari Johnson went up for a shot and was blocked by Buffalo’s Justin Ford. The Bulls’ physicality was there to stay, and it affected Kentucky early.

As the minutes ticked on in the first half, the Wildcats still couldn’t get a grip on Buffalo. Moss made his presence known again with 6:20 on the clock with a one-handed, posterizing dunk on Willie Cauley-Stein. That gave the Bulls a five-point lead at 30-25. And that five-point lead would eventually hold until halftime: Aaron Harrison missed a three-pointer at the buzzer, and Kentucky went into the locker room trailing, 38-33.

“It was very intense,” Johnson said about Kentucky’s locker room at halftime. “He (head coach John Calipari) just said we had to go out there and compete. We weren’t competing. We were just real sluggish. He said, ‘I’m gonna play the guys that’s gonna go out there and compete.’”


Enter the second “platoon.” Johnson, Ulis, Lyles, Marcus Lee and Devin Booker started the second half in place of the starters.
And it was the second platooners who re-energized a wavering Rupp Arena crowd and gave Kentucky the spark it needed to keep its No. 1 ranking heading into Tuesday’s made-for-TV clash with No. 5 Kansas.

Lyles popped a three-pointer 26 seconds into the second half to pull within two of Buffalo. His steal and dunk 16 seconds later tied the game at 38-38, and quickly gave the Wildcats the inspiration they had been lacking earlier.

“I just wanted to go out there and play with energy in the second half and just try to pick the team up,” Lyles said.

And that was the goal of the whole second platoon, when the first was struggling: Kentucky’s starters combined for 25 points off 10-34 field goal shooting, while their backups combined for 45 points off 15-27 shooting. Lyles and Ulis led the way for Kentucky with 12 each, and Booker went for 10.

“Now if I had stuck with those first guys you never would’ve seen Trey, Devin and Tyler do what they did,” Calipari said of his decision to start his backups after halftime. “They all three played well today. They need that.”

And Kentucky needed it, if it hoped to beat a scrappy and physical Buffalo team.

Although the platoons didn’t always go as planned on Sunday (Karl-Anthony Towns fouled out with 5:19 to go, meaning Johnson performed double-duty at times), the Wildcats still relied on their depth at every position to wear down the Bulls into submission – finally.

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Buffalo took one more lead at 14:23, after a Skeete jumper made it 45-43. But in the next 8:47, Kentucky rolled off a 16-2 run. The Wildcats’ first double-digit lead of the night came at 7:44 after a Booker layup, and they kept building on that – eventually until Ulis’ lob to Lyles gave them a 21-point lead with 26 seconds remaining.

Although it wasn’t exactly the kind of game Kentucky (or its fans) was expecting, it was what Kentucky needed, heading into the matchup against Kansas in Indianapolis.

“For us to be able to have a game like this, this was a big time game for us,” Calipari said. “We needed this. We needed a team that could beat us on the dribble and that wasn’t afraid, that played physical, that had an inside presence. And this is it. I mean, now we go to Kansas. It’s the same thing. We probably need another hit in the mouth. See where we are. There are no excuses.”

Ashley Scoby is a senior journalism major at the University of Kentucky. She has reported on the Wildcats for wildcathoops.com, vaughtsviews.com and kysportsreport.com as well as for newspapers in Danville and Glasgow.

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