Kentucky holds off Houston to move on to Elite Eight

Scott Phillips
NBC Sports

Kentucky used a late three-pointer from freshman Tyler Herro to get past No. 3 seed Houston with a 62-58 victory on Friday night to advance to the Elite Eight in the Midwest Region. The freshman’s go-ahead three-pointer with 25.8 seconds left gave Kentucky a two-point lead as Herro also made two free throws for the game’s deciding advantage. Kentucky closed the game on a 7-0 run to advance to the Elite Eight for the seventh time in head coach John Calipari’s 10 seasons as the team’s coach.

Kentucky (30-6) struggled with perimeter shooting (4-for-12) as they didn’t make a three-pointer in the second half until Herro’s late shot. Herro (19 points) was Kentucky’s main threat on the evening as he went 7-for-13 from the floor.

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But the Wildcats don’t advance on Friday without a gutsy effort from All-American forward P.J. Washington.

After missing the tournament’s first weekend with his foot in a hard cast, Washington made his return to the Kentucky lineup in the Sweet 16 as he came off the bench to finish with 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting. Washington wasn’t fully healthy, but his presence was huge for the Wildcats. The sophomore forward was a go-to player on offense while registering a key block that ignited the fast-break look for Herro’s go-ahead three. For Washington to play this well on a bum foot is a signature moment to an already memorable sophomore season.

With freshman Keldon Johnson (seven points, 3-for-12 shooting) having an off-day, Herro’s ability to create his own shot, and Washington’s stability on the inside, was all that Kentucky needed on offense as they grinded out this win against Houston’s strong defense.

This win wasn’t pretty for Kentucky, but they have to be pleased to advance on a night where only two players were clicking on offense. The Wildcats put forth a solid defensive outing against the Cougars, but they’re going to need more than Herro and Washington if they want to advance to another Final Four.

No. 2 seed Kentucky moves on to face No. 5 seed Auburn in Sunday’s Elite Eight in Kansas City. The Tigers are riding an 11-game winning streak as they’re one of the hottest teams in the field. But the Wildcats knocked off the Tigers, 80-53, during a blowout home SEC win in Lexington in late February.

Since that February loss to Kentucky, Auburn hasn’t lost, as the Tigers’ offense continues to put up flurries of points behind a dangerous collection of three-point shooters. Although it’s looking like Auburn will be without versatile sophomore wing forward Chuma Okeke (knee) on Sunday, Auburn is still a very credible threat with the way they’re playing. Although we saw a blowout between these two teams in the regular season, a similar result in the Elite Eight would come as a surprise given how good the Tigers have looked in recent weeks.

Houston (33-4) had one of its most successful seasons in decades as they advanced to the second weekend for the first time since 1984. This loss is going to sting for the the AAC champions, however, as they came very close to knocking off one of the sport’s bluebloods until the final minute. The Cougars were led by Armoni Brooks as he buried five second-half three-pointers to pace Houston as he finished with 20 points. Guards Corey Davis Jr. (14 points) and Galen Robinson Jr. (10 points) also finished in double-figures for the Cougars.

With a chance to close out Kentucky in the final minutes, Houston went cold as Brooks couldn’t knock down a final dagger. With its big men battling foul trouble, Houston’s guards made a huge late push as the Cougars went on a 20-10 run to take a three-point lead. But Houston couldn’t close on either end of the floor as they let Herro take an open look and Washington get comfortable on the block during key defensive possessions.

Head coach Kelvin Sampson has re-built Houston into a nationally-respected program with back-to-back appearances in the Round of 32. The Cougars also had the opportunity to close out games during back-to-back tournaments where they ended up losing in the final minute.

Last season, Jordan Poole’s buzzer-beating three-pointer lifted Michigan past Houston when the Cougars were clinging to a late lead in the Round of 32. This year, Houston led 58-55 with 1:16 left before seeing its lead melt away during the final possessions in the Sweet 16. These seasons have certainly been memorable for the Cougars but some giant postseason “What Ifs?” loom as the main story.

If Sampson ends up leaving Houston for another job this offseason — either way, Sampson is going to get paid by someone for his recent string of success — then it’ll be fascinating to see how the Cougars maintain. It’s been fun having Houston basketball back in the national college basketball landscape these past few seasons. Sampson has helped develop some fun guards to watch with some teams that came very close to making deep runs in the tournament.

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