Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Region? If Auburn had cooperated, it could have been PJ Washington’s podiatrist.
Playing his second game within 48 hours despite the lingering pain from a sprained foot, Washington was Kentucky’s main man.
But Auburn’s star backcourt tandem of Bryce Brown and Jared Harper spoiled the storyline and Kentucky’s hopes of advancement to the Final Four. They all but double-handedly led Auburn to a 77-71 overtime victory over Kentucky in Sunday’s Midwest Region finals.
Washington, who posted a double-double with game highs of 28 points and 13 rebounds, stared at the floor of UK’s locker room as he answered media questions.
“It sucks,” he said. “I’m heartbroken. I just want everybody to know I gave everything I had.”
Teammate Jemarl Baker saluted Washington, who joined Tyler Herro as UK’s representatives on the all-Midwest Region team.
“He played great, considering he wasn’t 100 percent,” Baker said.
When asked how his foot felt, Washington answered directly. “It hurts,” he said.
But Brown and Harper proved that two could be better than an exceptional one. The pair combined for 50 points. More tellingly, Brown (24 points) and Harper (26 points) combined to score 39 of Auburn’s final 51 points.
This was not coincidental, Auburn assistant coach Steven Pearl said. His father, Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl, all but ordered Harper and Brown to take over.
“The second-half offense, we’re going to get the ball to Jared and Bryce” as the younger Pearl recalled his father’s halftime instruction. “And everybody else get the (knowing smile as he paused) out of the way.”
The execution that followed propelled Auburn (30-9) to its first Final Four.
UK finished its season with a 30-7 record.
Kentucky dodged a bullet to get the game into overtime. Horace Spencer, who had made three of 17 three-point shots this season, missed from the left wing at the buzzer.
Harper, who was named the Midwest Region’s Most Outstanding Player, twice drove for scores to put the Tigers ahead 64-60 early in overtime.
Kentucky’s deficit grew to 70-63 with 70 seconds left when Harper hit two free throws.
After a Washington three got Kentucky within 74-71, Auburn clinched the victory by making three of four free throws in the final 16.1 seconds.
Kentucky succeeded in containing Auburn’s three-point attack. The Tigers, who came into the game ranked third nationally with an average of 11.5 three-point baskets a game, made only seven. Auburn had made more than seven in all but five games this season.
In saluting Auburn, Immanuel Quickley said, “The tough twos we wanted them to take, they made.”
Kentucky led by as much as 11 points in the first half. Auburn rallied with Brown and Harper scoring 21 of the Tigers’ first 28 points of the second half.
Brown, who scored 25 second-half points when the teams played at Auburn on Jan. 19, scored 17 after halftime.
Kentucky never trailed in the first half and led 35-30 at halftime. The Cats made one more three-point shot than Auburn (four to three). The Cats limited Brown and Harper to 5-for-14 shooting (two of seven from three-point range).
Washington led the way offensively in the first half with 15 points. He had scored that many points or fewer in 19 games this season.
Besides scoring, Washington also helped get Auburn’s depleted front line in foul trouble. Austin Wiley gave Auburn a lift before picking up his second foul and going to the bench with 10:54 left. Malik Dunbar picked up his third foul with 4:22 left.
Kentucky got off to a fast start. Auburn got off to a slow start. UK scored the game’s first seven points, while Auburn missed its first six shots. As a result, UK led 17-7 when Herro hit a transition three-pointer.
Kentucky’s first-half lead grew to as much as 22-11 on a Washington drive with 9:28 left.
Though Auburn rallied from a 17-point second-half deficit to nearly beat Kentucky in the first regular-season game, the Tigers had not been a comeback team. Auburn had a 25-2 record when leading at halftime, and a 3-7 record when trailing.
Auburn looked like a different team in the second half. Brown (eight) and Harper (two) accounted for the Tigers’ first 10 points. Game on.
Brown’s three-pointer with 17:44 left gave Auburn its first lead at 40-37.
A possession-by-possession struggle ensued.
“I feel like all the hard work we put (in) just went down the drain …,” Washington said. “I just tried to go out there and give everything I had. Unfortunately we came up short. I can live with it because I gave everything. And my teammates did, too.”