KANSAS CITY, MO: This is the time of year that matters. This is March. Win and advance. Lose and go home.
For the Kentucky Wildcats, it was truly a “survive and advance” game against the Houston Cougars. After having seen a 13-point lead eventually turn into a 3-point deficit, the BBN was wondering if it was all going to end in Kansas City, on a cold, rainy, miserable night. The Cats prevailed 62-58, but nothing about this game was easy nor pretty.
For Kentucky Wildcat fans, after sweating through a tough contest against the Wofford Terriers in Jacksonville last weekend, nothing about this entire week had been easy. While advancing to yet another Sweet 16, questions still remained about the status of PJ Washington. Could the Cats survive another game without him on the court?
In short, no. As John Calipari said after the game:
We don’t win the game today without him. We don’t.
Short, sweet, and to the point. It was Washington’s block of a Corey Davis, Jr. shot that sealed the Cougars’ fate. That block then led to a Tyler Herro 3-point basket, his only triple of the game.
Prior to Kentucky’s game, the 17,385 fans at the Sprint Center witnessed the Auburn Tigers completely dismantle the North Carolina Tarheels in the 2nd half, ultimately winning by 20 to advance to Sunday’s Elite 8 contest against the Wildcats. Perhaps the Big Blue Faithful were concerned UK would fall to the underdog in their game. Maybe they were wondering about PJ’s status. Or were they just tired with the very late tipoff time of the game? Whatever the reason, the rousing and thunderous cheers of “Go Big Blue” that we hear every game at every venue, home, road, or a neutral site, were nowhere to be found.
That is, until the 15:31 mark of the 1st half when PJ Washington made his initial appearance. In just 26 minutes of play, PJ scored 16 points and added 2 rebounds and 1 assist to go with his game-saving block. His return to the lineup seemed to restore balance to the Cats and it appeared they would have a far less stressful game than their matchup with Wofford last weekend. UK had opened up a 13-point lead late in the first half (37-24) before Houston scored a basket at the buzzer to make the halftime score 37-26.
Houston was not going away easily, though. Shooting 7-20 from beyond the arc, the Cougars stormed all the way back and eventually took a 3-point lead with 2 minutes remaining in the game, 58-55. Led by Armoni Brooks (20 points) and Davis, Jr (14 points), Houston would not score again while the Cats closed the game with a 7-0 run.
It was certainly a strange feeling night. Tyler Herro missed a free throw. Along media row, we wondered if that was a bad omen. Late in the game, PJ missed 2 critical free throws. We couldn’t help but wonder, “Is this Atlanta all over again?”
Obviously, the outcome was much more pleasant than last year’s Sweet 16 loss to Kansas State. Calipari credited his team’s “will to win.” Herro’s 19 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists certainly didn’t hurt, either. And while Keldon Johnson may have appeared to have had a “quiet” game, his final stats showed 7 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists. And Reid Travis? He was able to be the supporting player that helps PJ shine and logged 6 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 assists.
Friday’s victory moves Kentucky to their 34th Elite 8, which is an NCAA record. The Cats will face fellow SEC foe, Auburn, in the Midwest Region Final, guaranteeing at least 1 SEC team will make the Final Four.
Saturday, rest, recovery, and some preparation will be the order of the day and then Sunday at 1:20 CT (2:20 ET), UK will see if they have what it takes to return to the Final Four.
Because, now it’s March. It matters. It’s survive and advance, or lose and go home. Here’s hoping the will to win is enough to get this extraordinarily fun team to Minneapolis.
Enjoy the ride!
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