BOISE, Idaho — It didn’t take long for the crowd at Taco Bell Arena to make known its rooting interest in Saturday’s Kentucky-Buffalo game. John Calipari could’ve closed his eyes and imagined he was in any road arena in the SEC as the boos washed over him during pregame introductions.
The fifth-seeded Wildcats didn’t bring their usual traveling army of supporters, and the locals — plus fans from other teams playing here on the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament — threw their full-throated support behind the 13th-seeded Cinderella, Buffalo, which had demolished Arizona two nights earlier.
OUT OF NOWHERE: Written off, Diallo and Cats soar into Sweet 16
They thundered even louder as the Bulls slashed an 11-point Kentucky lead to just 5 late in the first half on a deep 3-pointer. It could’ve been Knoxville or Gainesville or College Station or Auburn or Columbia (South Carolina and Missouri) — where the young Wildcats lost this season.
But when freshman point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander buried a 3-pointer of his own to answer Buffalo’s run and quiet that crowd, it felt more like Baton Rouge or Morgantown or Fayetteville — where Kentucky won this season. Only this was so much sweeter, given the stakes, and so Gilgeous-Alexander did something unusual: He acknowledged a hostile crowd.
He put his right index finger to his lips and stared up into the stands, as if to say, “Shhhhhhhh.”
“I knew before the game the crowd was against us, they were cheering for the underdogs. And then they went on a little run and the crowd was screaming, it was hollering, it was the loudest I heard it all game,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. But then, “I silenced the crowd, and I just let them know I silenced them.”
He was hardly finished. The SEC Tournament MVP continued his blistering postseason with perhaps his most impressive performance yet in a 95-75 victory that sent Kentucky to its seventh Sweet 16 in nine seasons under Calipari.
Gilgeous-Alexander got to the rim at will, sank 10 of 12 shots, and finished with 27 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals. Although he rarely speaks much above a whisper and seems incapable of doing anything with his face other than smile, teammates were not surprised to see the shoosh on Saturday.
“You guys might not know Shai as well [as you think],” forward Wenyen Gabriel said after scoring 16 points and grabbing 12 rebounds Saturday. “He just got lost in the game.”
Several Wildcats did. Hamidou Diallo delivered his best game of the season, too, with 22 points and 8 rebounds, as Kentucky won for the ninth time in the last 10 games after a four-game losing streak in early February cast doubt on this freshman-led team’s potential.
Afterward, the Cats said they’d heard some of the chirping Buffalo did — and they definitely heard that crowd.
“Pretty much all of us took it personal,” said star Kevin Knox, whose foul trouble couldn’t even slow down Kentucky on Saturday. “I know a lot of people don’t know who Buffalo is — they were just going for the underdog — but we just had to shut everybody up and 20-piece them.”
The lead was actually only 5 points again with 8:10 remaining in the second half and the anti-Kentucky contingent was getting a second wind. Naturally, Gilgeous-Alexander drove, scored and got fouled. His 3-point play ignited a finishing blitz that emptied the stands long before the result was official.
“We’ve played in a ton of road games,” Gabriel said. “Sold out, T-shirt night, everyone’s rooting against you. That environment that we played in all season gave us the experience to win this type of game.”
Now it’s on to a city so frequently overrun by Big Blue Nation — let’s be real, short of Boise and 2016 first-weekend destination Des Moines, what city isn’t? — it has been dubbed Catlanta. The Wildcats will face the winner of No. 9 seed Kansas State vs. No. 16 seed UMBC in a round they’ve never lost in under Calipari.
They do not expect to be booed.
“I think,” Gabriel said, “Kentucky’s going to be in Atlanta.”