BOISE, Idaho -- And just like that, the Arizona Wildcats are no longer in the Big Dance.
To most of the country, the Bulls -- the MAC champs who were barely talked about despite their 26 wins -- weren’t expected to do much of anything.
Just look at your bracket.
But they didn’t feel that way. Despite the immense talent difference and the fact that the Bulls were vastly undersized against the Deandre Ayton-led Wildcats, Buffalo looked like the higher seed, totally beating the Wildcats on just about every part of the floor.
“Obviously, we knew we were supposed to win this game,” said Buffalo forward Nick Perkins, who finished with 13 points and four rebounds Thursday.
Well, Perkins has to clarify that statement. He was confident that the Bulls would break the bracket on Thursday night, but he didn’t officially think the game was theirs until there were five minutes left and Arizona called a timeout while down 77-60.
As Perkins peaked over at Arizona’s bench, he saw players arguing with each other, composure vanishing during the biggest game of the season.
“Once you get a team down and they’re arguing and stuff, that’s how you know you got them,” Perkins said.
He was right, and the Bulls finished the final five minutes outscoring Arizona 12-8, capping a half in which they outscored the Pac-12 champions by 19.
No giants had yet fallen in the first day of the NCAA tournament, and in one of the final games of the night, the team picked as the preseason No. 2 team was the first major casualty. Unlike the three prior games in Boise -- where all the higher seeds won by fewer than 10 points -- the double-digit-seeded Bulls put on a clinic inside Taco Bell Arena.
Buffalo, which was a 9.5-point underdog to Arizona, will face No. 5 seed Kentucky on Saturday.
Playing in front of an overwhelmingly pro-Buffalo crowd, the smaller Bulls dismantled Arizona's defense with a smattering of 3-pointers and outscored the Wildcats 45-6 from beyond the arc (15-of-30). They were quicker, faster and more aggressive. The Bulls looked like the Final Four team, while Arizona looked overwhelmed by the guard-heavy Bulls lineup.
The last No. 4 seed to lose by 15 or more points in the round of 64 was Wake Forest in 2009 (to Cleveland State). With 1:11 remaining, Buffalo's band and cheerleaders were chanting "I believe that we will win!" and, frankly, they could have started that chant with their Bulls up 15 with less than six minutes left.
And while Buffalo was outscored 42-30 in the paint, the Bulls spent all night frustrating Ayton, the future NBA star and possible No. 1 pick in this year's draft, by limiting him to just 14 points.
The key for the Bulls was to double-team Ayton, usually with a guard either behind him or underneath him, taking away any clean looks to the basket and from passes. Buffalo consistently put a ton of pressure on the Wildcats’ guard play and fronted Ayton at the basket to keep this offense from ever finding its rhythm through their world-class big man.
“I think in the Pac-12 a lot, [Ayton] was getting a lot of easy catches -- guys were just letting him catch the ball -- and he was just going to work,” Perkins said. “We fronted the post and made every shot hard for him. If he’s not scoring all them points, getting all them rebounds, it’s hard for them to win.”
It was, and when the buzzer sounded and the enormous contingent of bandwagon Bulls fans erupted in cheers and applause, Buffalo was the one left dancing.
Junior guard CJ Massinburg, who dropped 19 points and five 3-pointers on Arizona, checked his phone in the locker room and found 20 new direct messages on Twitter. The number of social media mentions and new text messages were too overwhelming to count, but the sucking of battery life was worth it.
“My phone’s going crazy right now,” Massingburg said with a smile.
So is little ol’ Buffalo. They might not have the big names or the big bodies, but they have the work ethic. And this time of year, sometimes that’s all that matters.
“Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard,” Perkins said. “We played harder and the team that plays harder always deserves to win.”