KANSAS CITY – Reid Travis has a Stanford degree and he was far more politically correct than teammate Ashton Hagans when he used the term “oozing with confidence” while searching for the correct words to describe the unwavering swagger of Tyler Herro.
“Big nuts,” Hagans said.
Yep. Can’t argue with that. Not exactly debatable, certainly not after Herro buried the shot that staved off the Wildcats from elimination – a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left that turned a one-point deficit into a 60-58 lead against No. 3 seed Houston.
“I always think it’s going in,” admitted Herro, who knocked down a pair of free throws with 13 seconds remaining for good measure to seal the deal and send Kentucky to an Elite Eight matchup with SEC foe Auburn on Sunday.
Kentucky let Houston hang around and the Cougars took control – at least for a short stint – after Corey Davis Jr.’s pretty floater in the lane made it 58-55 with a little more than a minute remaining.
While Herro wound up making the biggest shot of the night, he shared the spotlight and the postgame podium with P.J. Washington, who missed the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament while in a cast nursing a sprained left foot.
Washington was fairly certain he was going to give it a go for Friday night’s game – three days after having the cast removed – but he didn’t do much in practice on Thursday and didn’t feel great at morning shootaround hours before the game.
No one, including Calipari and Washington, had any clue of his effectiveness.
[RELATED: One Key Stat From Every Sweet 16 Game]
His teammates were in the dark like everyone else, especially since Washington hadn’t done much in terms of actual running and cutting. But when they saw him with his uniform on prior to the game, going through pre-game warmups and dunking, they figured he’d give it a shot.
But it wasn’t until he caught a pass in transition from Keldon Johnson that his teammates knew he was actually back.
Washington’s presence was a necessity against a quick, athletic Houston team that loves to double the big men and force the frontline players to make quick decisions. Washington is a high-IQ, versatile player who can pass out of the post and also score on the block and from mid-range.
“We don’t win the game today without him,” Calipari said.
Of course, there was rust. He missed shots that he normally makes, he wasn’t as active on the glass and admitted that his lateral quickness was hampered by the injury. But he also made a huge shot in the lane with less than a minute left to trim the deficit to 58-57 and then came up with the defensive play of the game – a block on Houston’s Corey Davis Jr., which set up Herro’s defining moment.
Just 24 hours earlier, Calipari said he wouldn’t be surprised if Washington didn’t play at all and would be “stunned” if he played more than 15 or 18 minutes against Houston.
But once Calipari watched him on the court, he couldn’t take him off the floor.
Washington logged 26 minutes and finished with 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
Now Kentucky is whole again. The ‘Cats went through a stretch at the end of the regular season when they were without an injured Travis. Then came the deal with Washington. Now both big men are back and they will have a matchup with an Auburn team that will be without its most talented player and best frontline guy – Chuma Okeke.
The sophomore forward went down with a knee injury midway through the second half against North Carolina and it’s feared that he suffered a season-ending knee injury.
This is Calipari’s seventh trip to the Elite Eight in his 10 seasons as the head coach in Lexington. That’s a ridiculous run but he understands that he’s not measured by being one of the final eight teams left standing. He’s judged by national championships and he’s got one on his resume from 2012.
This team isn’t nearly as talented as that group which featured Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist but with a healthy Washington back on the court and Herro, the kid who is oozing with confidence – no, the kid who has “big nuts” – the ‘Cats certainly have a chance to hang another banner in Rupp.