Kentucky's thrilling win sets up all-SEC Elite Eight showdown vs. Auburn: 'We know how good they are'
Many NCAA prognosticators reference the Rule of 71. The idea of the maxim is that a team that scores 71 points generally has put up enough offense to win the vast majority of games. Don’t tell Kentucky — the Wildcats are working on the Rule of 62.
After a solid offensive first half, Kentucky turned on the defense late and made just enough shots to outlast Houston, 62-58, Friday night in the NCAA Sweet 16. This was Kentucky’s second consecutive such win, following a 62-56 triumph over Wofford in the Round of 32. Friday’s victory sets up a rematch against Auburn. Kentucky beat Auburn twice in the regular season — an 82-80 battle on The Plains and an 80-53 thumping in Rupp Arena that seemingly served only to settle the Tigers in for a run of unforgettable March basketball.
Conventional wisdom entering the weekend was that Kentucky’s time in Kansas City would be short without meaningful contribution from sophomore forward P.J. Washington. The Wildcats indeed relied heavily on Washington, playing on a sprained foot which seemed to cause him little to no trouble. Washington didn’t start, but played well off the bench with 16 points, including several pivotal baskets and a huge block late in the second half.
“We don’t win the game today without him,” confirmed John Calipari in his post-game comments. Few could argue.
Kentucky’s other big contributor was freshman guard Tyler Herro, who finished with a game-high 19 points, including a pivotal 3-pointer to give Kentucky the lead with 25 seconds to play. From there, after Kentucky forced a miss from Houston star Corey Davis, Herro sank a pair of free throws to account for the game’s final margin.
Not unlike the Wildcats’ second round win over Wofford, the game was a heart-stopper late, although all of the late drama came after Kentucky took control of the game early, leading by as many as 13 points and holding a 37-26 advantage at halftime. Houston trailed from midway through the first half until they tied the score with 4:23 to play at 49-all on an Armoni Brooks 3-pointer. The Cougars twice grabbed a 3-point lead, but couldn’t hold on down the stretch.
“I love our will to win,” said John Calipari after the game. “Houston is a terrific team and they were not going to go away.”
In a round in which the SEC went 2-2, the league’s two remaining foes will face off in the Elite Eight, guaranteeing the conference a spot in the Final Four in Minneapolis. The last such all-SEC regional final took place in 2017, when Frank Martin’s South Carolina Gamecocks outlasted Mike White’s Florida Gators 77-70 in Madison Square Garden to earn the school’s first Final Four berth. Those two teams had split their regular-season matchups, with each squad winning at home.
With Friday’s victory, Kentucky eliminated a Houston squad that finished the season at 33-4. The Cougars had last made the Final Four in 1984, when they lost the NCAA Final to Georgetown a game after the Hoyas beat Kentucky. For Kentucky, Sunday’s game against Auburn will be the Wildcats’ NCAA-leading 38th Elite Eight appearance (and John Calipari’s 7th in 10 seasons in Lexington), and the Wildcats seek their 18th Final Four in school history, second only to North Carolina. Auburn, meanwhile, is in their second ever Elite Eight (the other coming in 1986), and seeks the school’s first trip to the Final Four.
“They’re playing great right now,” admitted Calipari of Auburn after Kentucky’ s win. Calipari sought a little clarification from the media on Auburn’s win streak. “They’ve won what, nine in a row?” he asked. Informed that he had shorted the Tigers two games, Calipari seemed duly impressed.
“We know how good they are,” he went on to say.