BOISE, Idaho — As he jumped, Hamidou Diallo said he didn’t know what kind of trick dunk he’d throw down. But there was really only one choice: his signature windmill, to cap his signature game, to send Kentucky soaring into the Sweet 16.
The emphatic slam with 1:41 left was the perfect punctuation in Kentucky’s 95-75 win against Buffalo in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday afternoon in Boise.
For most of this season, and as recently as two weeks ago, it would’ve been hard to imagine Diallo as the man getting a hug from coach John Calipari as the seconds ticked off a Sweet 16-clinching victory in March. Or the man in the middle of a group hug-slash-mugging in the postgame locker room.
“The team absolutely mauled him when he walked in,” Calipari said. “He was almost mad because they just like [tackled him]. Every guy was standing on chairs, hugging him. It was neat to see.”
“Hurt my neck a little bit,” Diallo said with a smile.
His Saturday stat line should ease the pain: 9 of 12 shooting, 22 points, 8 rebounds, 2 (ridiculous) blocks and a steal. He’d only scored more once in his UK career — three months ago — with 23 points in a game against Monmouth that was meaningless to just about everyone but Diallo, a Queens native back home playing in Madison Square Garden.
Boise is no New York, but a December non-conference game is no March Madness.
Considering the stakes, “I think that was the best game he’s played as a Wildcat,” Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne said. “There’s a difference in what he did in New York. He played really well, but what he just did in front of the national media, everybody watching, NCAA game, playing to get into the Sweet 16, he showed the world how good he can be and what perseverance is through adversity.”
Perseverance through adversity is a perfect summary of Diallo’s season. Ask him why he’s played so well through the first two games of the tournament, and he’ll tell you about the path he took to get here.
The redshirt freshman would’ve likely been a first-round NBA draft pick had he left after his one semester at UK last season. He posted a jaw-dropping, 44 1/2-inch vertical leap at the combine, confirming what everyone already knew — he’s a freak athlete — but his actual game remained a mystery. Could he really play?
No one knew after he opted not to play for the Wildcats in the second half of last season, as the Cats came within a North Carolina buzzer-beater of the Final Four, but ultimately withdrew from the draft and returned to Kentucky with perhaps unrealistic expectations that he’d become a star.
And for most of November and December, Diallo looked like one. He scored at least 18 points in 7 of 11 games to open the season — but then came the fall.
Diallo’s numbers, minutes and confidence dwindled as Kentucky began SEC play. He started all 18 conference games, but averaged just 7 points and 23 minutes. He shot a dreadful 35 percent from the field and 28 percent from 3-point range.
Diallo openly acknowledged his struggles. And as he sat in his locker after the game Saturday, he wasn’t on a high after his monster game. He was his measured, introspective self.
“It’s all a buildup,” Diallo said. “You can’t just be at rock bottom and think ‘boom,’ like that, you’re gonna be back on the top. … I’m still 19 years old. I’m still not my best. I’m just gonna keep getting better year in and year out. I just can’t wait to see what I am as a finished product.”
Until then, he has to carve out a more narrowly defined role on a talented team.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is Kentucky’s best player. Kevin Knox is its best pure scorer. PJ Washington is the bulldozer. Quade Green and Wenyen Gabriel are the marksmen. So what is Diallo?
“No one can do what Hami does — on my team,” Calipari said. “But he can’t do what Shai does and he can’t do what Kevin Knox does; don’t try to do that. Do what you do. You’re the best at what you do in the country. ‘It’s hard because you don’t understand my game. I got all these things I can do.’ I know, a lot of turnovers and missed shots. But this thing here that you’re doing? You’re as good as anybody in the country.”
Calipari’s hair has turned grayer with the amount of times he’s called for Diallo, and the rest of his players, to make the easy play. But with all of that athleticism, making the easy play isn’t always preferable — at least it didn’t used to be. Now things have changed for Diallo.
Sure, the windmill was wild. The put-back dunk in the first half was crazy. Even crazier was his first-half chase-down block. But the points came easy, in the flow and not forced.
“He’s understanding who he is,” Payne said. “He’s not trying to be something that he’s not. He’s not trying to be Steph Curry. He’s trying to be Hamidou Diallo. ‘You close out at me? I’m attacking you. I’m 6-5, I’m explosive around the basket, I can post up and jump over you. I can rebound at a high level and I’m an NBA-type defender.’ That’s who he is, and that’s what he’s going out trying to prove.”
Diallo and the Cats are now headed to Atlanta — two games from the Final Four and four wins from cutting down another net. A month ago, nobody saw this coming. Not from the Cats and certainly not from Diallo.
“Most people say it’s just the New York City in me,” he said. “Nobody wants to go home, so we’re just gonna have to keep fighting until we make it to San Antonio, God willing.”
Watch: Hamidou Diallo on his career game in the NCAA Tournament
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