By Jamie H. Vaught
Kentucky’s NCAA Sweet Sixteen matchup with Houston Friday night was a dangerous one, but the No. 2 seed Wildcats hit the boards hard and survived the hard-fought battle with a thrilling 62-58 win in the Midwest Region in Kansas City.
UK, now 30-6, advanced to Sunday afternoon’s All-SEC Elite Eight contest (2:20 p.m. ET on CBS) with Auburn, which earlier embarrassed North Carolina 97-80.
Despite their 14 turnovers, the Wildcats overcame the No. 3 seed Cougars’ stingy defense with outstanding performances by Tyler Herro (19 points on 7-of-13 shooting), PJ Washington (16 points on 6-of-8 shooting) and Travis Reid (11 rebounds).
Entering the contest, Coach Kelvin Sampson’s Houston club ranked No. 1 in the nation in two defensive categories -- field-goal percentage defense (.366) and three-point field goal percentage defense (.278). The Cougars, who finished at 33-4, also rated No. 7 in scoring defense (61.0 points) as well as No. 5 in rebounds per game (41.1).
Even though Houston was No. 8 in the country in rebounding margin (plus 7.8), UK outrebounded the Cougars by 36-23.
“They were not going to go away,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said of the Cougars during his postgame press conference. “We had to go get balls and do some stuff to beat them, and it was a great win and I'm happy for our guys.”
PJ Washington -- who became a social media star in the rabid Big Blue Nation during the NCAA tournament with his sprained ankle -- made his first NCAA tournament appearance this season after sitting out UK’s first two victories in the Big Dance. He didn’t start but came off the bench early in the first half and played 26 minutes overall.
“It's good to have PJ back," said Calipari. "We don't win the game today without him. We don't."
Washington said he took pain pills before the tipoff and added that his ankle “kind of started hurting in the second half, but I have to tough through it. Through the end of the game, it was trying to cramp up. I'm definitely going back to get some treatment after this and try to get a good night's sleep.”
Calipari, who will making his seventh Elite Eight appearance during his 10 years at Kentucky Sunday, praised his team.
“I love our will to win,” he said. “How we played down the stretch, Ashton (Hagans) making free throws, Tyler makes his shot, PJ makes the 3-point play. We make our free throws, we defend.”
Looking ahead to Auburn, the Wildcats will be facing a red-hot team that has won 11 straight games, including capturing the SEC tournament in beating the Tennessee Vols. But UK defeated the Tigers twice (82-80 in Auburn and 80-53 in Lexington) earlier in the season.
In upsetting the Tar Heels Friday night, it was a costly win for Auburn which saw its sophomore star Chuma Okeke leaving the game in the late second half with a knee injury. Okeke, a probable first-round pick of the 2019 NBA Draft, had 20 points and 11 rebounds, both game-highs.
On Auburn, Calipari said, "We know how good they are. We've had battles. We were lucky to win down there. They missed a layup. We played pretty good, and they missed shots they normally make at our place which led us to a pretty good win.
"Look, we respect them. We respect their players and what they do and how they play and how hard they play. We're a little different than them. They're going to take 35, 40 threes. It's what they do. We're not going to shoot that many, but we'll take them if they're there, and, you know, it should be a good game. One good thing means that the SEC will have at least one team in the Final Four."
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, who took his Tennessee team to Elite Eight in 2010, was asked about playing UK on Sunday.
"They physically overwhelmed us in Lexington," he said of the Wildcats. "We actually went into that game playing pretty well, and we got manhandled. We haven't lost since that game in late February. The lesson there was because we respect Kentucky so much and we recognize they had a great night, these guys weren't destroyed. Kentucky really beat us. We didn't play great, but we got it handed to us because they played so well.
On the impact of the loss of Okeke, Pearl said, "He's a nightmare to match up with because he can guard any position. He can score inside and out. So, as a play caller he gives you incredible flexibility. He's our most versatile player."
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.