Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s NCAA Tournament win over Houston

Photo slideshow: Kentucky defeats Houston to reach Elite Eight

The Kentucky men's basketball team defeated Houston 62-58 in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. Kentucky will face Auburn in the Elite Eight on Sunday.
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The Kentucky men's basketball team defeated Houston 62-58 in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. Kentucky will face Auburn in the Elite Eight on Sunday.

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s heart-stopping 62-58 win over Houston:

1. If I ever I hurt my foot, I’m going to Wisconsin

Before Thursday, I would have bet almost anything UK forward PJ Washington, he of the sprained left foot, would not be ready in time for Kentucky’s Midwest Regional semifinal game against the Cougars. After all, the Cats’ leading scorer and rebounder had spent last weekend sporting a cast and using a scooter. But then, Washington reportedly jetted off to Wisconsin to see a foot specialist. And, voila, medical miracles do happen.

“We don’t win this game without PJ,” said teammate Reid Travis after Washington scored 16 points in 25 minutes as the Cats reached their seventh Elite Eight in John Calipari’s 10 years as the team’s head coach.

It wasn’t just the points, but when Washington scored them. UK had lost a 13-point lead, trailing 54-51 and then 58-55, when Washington got the ball in the post. “We knew they were going to Washington, but we had guarded the post pretty good,” said Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson. “But for some reason we missed a defensive assignment.”

And PJ made them pay by putting the ball in the hole while being fouled. Washington missed the free throw, but made up for it quickly by coming up with a huge defensive play at the other end, blocking a drive by Houston’s Corey Davis. UK rebounded. And Tyler Herro drilled a three-pointer with 26 seconds left that proved to be the difference.

“Make no mistake, he’s their best player, No. 25,” said Sampson afterward. “He’s the only one we didn’t have an answer for.”

Thank goodness that doctor in Wisconsin had the answers.

2. An epic collapse and an epic save all on the same night

In the end, the Cats pulled the win out of the fire. But not without testing Big Blue Nation’s blood pressure in the process. UK led 37-26 at halftime. And the Cats had not lost a game when leading by double digits at halftime since Dec. 15, 2007, at Freedom Hall in Louisville. Up 40-28 over UAB that afternoon under Billy Gillispie, the Cats lost 79-76. So, yes, Calipari still has never lost a game at Kentucky in which his team led by 10 or more at the half.

When Herro connected on a runner just 23 seconds into the second half, the lead reached 13 points. Houston didn’t stop defending and soon it became harder and harder for Kentucky to score. The Cougars entered the game the national leader in field-goal-percentage defense (36.7 percent) and from the 17:05 mark to the 3:38 mark, UK was outscored 25-10.

Turnovers were a problem. Kentucky ended up with 14 on the night, compared to seven for Houston. Travis and Ashton Hagans ended up with four each. And when not turning the ball over, the Cats couldn’t get shots to fall. After shooting 56 percent the first half, the Cats shot 38.1 the second, and that included the clutch shots down the stretch.

That may have been the most impressive part. With Davis and running mate Armoni Brooks throwing in shots, Houston had all the momentum, up 58-55 with 1:12 left. But, much as it did last weekend to beat Wofford in the second round, Calipari’s club made the key, gritty plays at the end to survive and advance.

3. And now, for a third time, it’s Auburn

Bruce Pearl, I think you know Mr. Calipari. And John Calipari, I think you know Mr. Pearl. The two are not the best of friends, dating back to the days when Pearl was the coach at Tennessee and Calipari was the coach at Memphis. Territorial battles reared their ugly heads. Now here they are again all those years later, facing off for a trip to the Final Four. Tip time is 2:20 p.m. on Sunday.

Kentucky and Auburn have met twice this season. UK won both. The Cats prevailed 82-80 at Auburn, then ran the Tigers out of Rupp Arena 80-53. Auburn hasn’t lost since, reeling off 11 straight wins, many in impressive fashion — 84-64 over Tennessee in the SEC Tournament final and 89-75 over Kansas in the second round of this tournament. Now add North Carolina to the list. No. 5 seed Tigers 97, No. 1 seed Tar Heels 80.

Incredible shooting has marked this incredible run. Auburn made 15 of 40 three-pointers in trouncing Tennessee. It was 13-of-30 from beyond the arc on the way to embarrassing Kansas. (Auburn led 51-25 at the half.) And Friday, Auburn was 17-of-37 from downtown to send Roy Williams and the Heels packing.

Alas, the win did not come without a significant loss.

After scoring 20 points and grabbing 11 rebounds, Auburn’s Chuma Okeke had his knee buckle badly with 8:08 left. The 6-foot-8 sophomore from Atlanta had to be helped off the floor. The injury appeared so gruesome that North Carolina players came over and offered encouragement as Okeke was carried off the floor. There was no immediate word about the extent of the injury, other than it was likely serious. And Okeke averages 11.8 points and 6.7 rebounds a game.

Pearl has plenty of other weapons. Jared Harper and Bryce Brown, to name a couple. Friday night, backup guard J’Von McCormick scored 10 points. And little-used Danjel Purifoy, averaging all of 3.1 points per game on the year, jumped up out of nowhere to drill four of six three-pointers for 12 points. I told you Auburn was hot. Red hot.

So for John Calipari to reach his fifth Final Four at Kentucky, and his first since 2015, he has to beat Bruce Pearl for the third time this season. And for Pearl to reach his first Final Four, the Auburn coach has to figure out a way to beat Calipari, something he hasn’t been able to do this year.

You know the old hoops axiom, it’s hard to beat a good team three times in one season.

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