John Clay

With a different kind of (Tyler) Herro, Kentucky advances to Sweet 16

Before Saturday, would anyone have called Tyler Herro a defensive stopper?

Kentucky freshman Tyler Herro talks about the defensive job he did guarding Wofford’s Fletcher Magee, college basketball’s all-time leading three-pointer shooter. UK defeated Wofford 62-56 in an NCAA Tournament game on March 23, 2019.
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Kentucky freshman Tyler Herro talks about the defensive job he did guarding Wofford’s Fletcher Magee, college basketball’s all-time leading three-pointer shooter. UK defeated Wofford 62-56 in an NCAA Tournament game on March 23, 2019.

There in the crowded and happy locker room after Kentucky’s 62-56 win over Wofford on Saturday, one of those smart-guy media members had a question for Tyler Herro.

OK, Tyler, back in high school in Wisconsin, when you were whipping opponents and wowing college scouts with your offensive exploits, what if you’d told people, “One day my team is going to win an NCAA Tournament game because of my defense.”

What would they have said?

First, Herro laughed.

“I’m out of my mind,” he said.

Yet that’s exactly what happened Saturday at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena as Herro chased, harassed and flat-out bothered Fletcher Magee, Wofford’s star three-point marksman and the sport’s all-time leading three-point shooter, into an 0-for-12 nightmare beyond the unforgiving arc as No. 2-seeded Kentucky tamed the No. 7-seeded Terriers.

“I don’t think that would have ever been said,” Herro said.

But then maybe we would have all been out of our minds if we said that John Calipari’s Cats would enter the weekend without the services of PJ Washington, their leading scorer, rebounder and All-American sophomore forward, and still thread the needle to advance to Friday’s Midwest Region semifinals in Kansas City, Mo.

“We’re a tough team,” sophomore center Nick Richards said. “Anybody can step up one day and take over.”

Minus Washington, a room full of heroes (or Herro-es) emerged. Reid Travis contributed a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Jemarl Baker came off the bench to score eight points and helped out guarding Magee. Ashton Hagans scored 12 points, dished out four assists and committed just two turnovers.

Herro missed nine of his 11 shots and that didn’t matter one iota thanks to his defense on Magee, who came in averaging 20.5 points per game, hitting 42.8 percent of his three-pointers and sporting the reputation for making every twisting, turning, off-balance shot imaginable.

Magee made none of those Saturday. Not one. His made field goals were three mid-range jumpers and one back-door layup. Those amazing, momentum-shifting threes that whip Wofford fans into a frenzy never found the bottom of the net.

“I just wanted to stay connected with him at all times,” said Herro when asked for his game plan. “I think I lost him once.”

Even that didn’t matter. Perhaps surprised by the opportunity, Magee missed a corner three. He finished with eight points, a testament to Kentucky’s length, grit and the work ethic of a certain player better known for his offense.

“If you look at the first game against — I think we played Transylvania — to now, it’s like day and night,” said Herro of his defensive improvement. “I just wanted to be the best player I can be, so I continued to work at it.”

OK, Nick Richards, question for you. If you were told at the beginning of the season that Kentucky would win an NCAA Tournament game because of Tyler Herro’s defense?

“I’d said, ‘You’re right.’”

Seriously?

“Tyler, he takes on any challenge no matter what it is,” UK’s sophomore center said. “Any opponent, he’s not going to be scared of anybody.”

“I’d have believed it,” echoed Reid Travis, with an I-mean-it grin.

Laughter immediately engulfed Travis’ locker.

“I think I’ve gone through enough college basketball seasons to understand that the team you are in the summer, and individuals, is nowhere close to what it is in March,” said UK’s wise, old man. “Maybe there were questions about his defense, but you’ve got a long year to get ready for that. … Give him a lot of credit. He’s taken it personally.”

Now the Cats are taking it to Kansas City. Whether Washington will be there on the floor is an open question. His sprained foot still in a cast Saturday, his scooter was again his best friend. Personally, I’m skeptical the sophomore will be available, which would be a shame.

And navigating the deeper waters of the Midwest semifinals and (if lucky enough) finals will be a much harder task. Then again, it might not be any more difficult than Tyler Herro, offensive star, transforming into a defensive stopper.

“I think,” said Travis, “that really showed tonight.”

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