NCAA: Diallo stayed dialed in, finally gets awaited breakthrough

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BOISE (KT) —Hamidou Diallo was the center of attention in the locker room after Kentucky punched its ticket to the Sweet Sixteen Saturday.

Diallo’s teammates gave the freshman guard a group hug after he scored 22 points — one shy of his career-high — and added eight rebounds and two blocked shots to lead the Wildcats to a 95-75 win over Buffalo. The two wins at Taco Bell Arena sent the surging Wildcats into the South Region semifinals for the second straight season.

“That’s what we want from Hami,” Kentucky forward Kevin Knox said. “That’s what we’ve wanted all year and I’m glad he’s figured it out. He’s had a rough year, but he kept fighting and kept staying in the gym. It’s paying off now, because he’s playing his butt off.”

Diallo had a pair of polarizing slam dunks, one on an offensive outback in the first half and another one, windmill style, late in the second half, putting an exclamation point on the blowout victory. Diallo said the windmill was his favorite.

“That’s my signature shot,” he said.

In addition to Knox, Kentucky’s entire roster was happy for Diallo, including team leader Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

“We all knew (a breakout) was going to happen sooner or later,” he said. “We have so many talented guys and you never know who’s night it’s going to be. We knew it was going to be Hami’s night and we were just ready for that breakout performance.”

The performance also brought a smile to Kentucky coach John Calipari, who never lost faith in Diallo and kept the freshman starter in the lineup during times of adversity.

“You saw what he is and what he’s capable of,” Calipari said.

Following the celebratory congratulations from his teammates, Diallo received a message from Calipari.

“He was happy for me and just keep building on that and definitely keep playing hard,” he said.

Counted on as being one of the team’s top scorers this season, Diallo showed promise early in the season and 10 or more points in 15 games, but struggled to reach the double figures against Southeastern Conference foes, a period in which Diallo and his coach were learning about each other.

“I was trying to learn about him and he was trying to learn about me,” Calipari said. “We were trying to figure this out. Everybody said, ‘Why are you starting him?’ (I did) because he deserves it. I love him and he’s going to do it. It just took us a long time.”

Kentucky’s leading scorer Kevin Knox added that Diallo stayed the course.

“He just listened to what the coaches were saying,” Knox said. “He conquering himself, he’s getting to the basket to do what he does best and he’s finishing. He did a lot of good things for the team. He had some rebounds and big-time blocks. That’s the Hami that we need the rest of the tournament.”

The offensive showing was a long time coming for Diallo, who finished in double figures for the first time since he scored 11 in an 87-66 win over Missouri on Feb. 24 at Rupp Arena. Since that time, Diallo’s scoring opportunities have been limited, overshadowed by his improvement on the defensive end of the court.

“It was a build up,” Diallo said. “You can’t just be at rock bottom and think just like, boom, that you’re going to be back on top. You’ve got to keep working on your game and keep building from there. I just stayed in the gym, not matter how I was playing. If I had zero points or had 20 points, I’m still going to back to Lexington and get in the gym.

Although the outing against the Bulls was among his best performances of the season, Diallo kept an even keel following the contest and remained “locked in” on defense, especially during the postseason.

“I’ve been so through much adversity, I’m just trying to go out there and play the game,” he said. “I’m not worried about numbers. You can see through my last games and I’m still happy no matter how I play. I just try to go out there and play the game the way I know how to play.”

Although he’s had a a breakthrough, Diallio is going to keep improving and isn’t looking back.

“That’s the way I live and live my life,” he said. “Just keep sticking to the blueprint.”’

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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