For the second time in three seasons, the Kentucky Wildcats are heading to the Elite Eight.
After taking a double-digit lead into half, the Houston Cougars rallied into the lead in the final minute, but a clutch three from Tyler Herro and the return of PJ Washington guided the Cats past Houston, as they secured a 62-58 victory,
Washington’s return did wonders for the Wildcats as the star sophomore did not miss a beat, going 6/8 from the field dropping 16 points.
Herro was the Cats’ leading scorer, as he dropped 19 points, including the game-winning three-pointer and free throws.
The most impressive stat from the game, however, was Kentucky’s domination on the glass The Cats outrebounded the Cougars 36-23. With a big height advantage, the Cats were able to box out an extremely physical Houston team and not let them get second-chance baskets.
With the win, the Cats will move onto preparing for an SEC clash in the Elite Eight, as the Cats will look to go 3-0 over Bruce Pearl and the Auburn Tigers in 2019.
After the win, John Calipari, Washington and Herro spoke at the podium while the rest of the team met with the media in the locker room.
Here’s a summary of what they had to say via the NCAA:
THE MODERATOR: Coach Calipari is here. We’re expecting PJ Washington and Tyler Herro as well. We’re going to ask Coach to open up for a statement on the game and then questions from all three gentlemen from Kentucky.
JOHN CALIPARI: I love our will to win. How we played down the stretch, Ashton making free throws, Tyler makes his shot, PJ makes the 3-point play. We make our free throws, we defend. But Houston, they’re a terrific team. Calvin has done an unbelievable job. They were not going to go away. We had to go get balls and do some stuff to beat them, and it was a great win and I’m happy for our guys.
THE MODERATOR: Start right here. Thank you.
Q. John, do you feel like your team has changed at all since you last played Auburn, and do you feel that their team has changed since you last played them?
JOHN CALIPARI: They’re playing great right now. They went through our conference tournament, like 9 wins in a row? What is it?
JOHN CALIPARI: 11 in a row. They’re playing and shooting it. They’re playing defense, getting their hands on balls. You know, it was -- you know, how they’re playing and how we’re playing. I mean it’s good to have PJ back. We don’t win the game today without him. We don’t.
You know, what he did and how -- the presence that he adds to the game and his ability to pass and do different things, and you’re not going to bow guard him, not going to muscle him. You’re not going to push him around. It’s not happening.
Q. Tyler, this one is for you. It seemed like Houston was really making you work to get open. Can you just talk through a little bit fighting through the wall and having to make the game winning shot?
TYLER HERRO: Yeah. I think they played great defense. I think that’s kind of their identity is just being a hard-nosed defensive team. Credit to them. They played great defense and made it hard on me.
Q. PJ, when you missed those two free throws, especially coming down the stretch as Houston was searching. Did you kind of flashback to Sweet 16 last year?
PJ WASHINGTON: Not at all. I’m a different player from last year.
JOHN CALIPARI: I didn’t, either. We were throwing him the ball. I’m so confident with him on the court as a coach.
Q. How the leg feel out there this evening, and did you end up having to take any painkillers beforehand?
PJ WASHINGTON: Oh, yeah, I took some pain pills before the game. Kind of started hurting in the second half, but I have to tough through it. Through the end of the game, it was trying to cramp up. I’m definitely going back to get some treatment after this and try to get a good night’s sleep.
Q. Coach, Auburn has kind of made a habit of beating Blue Bloods. They have not lost since you beat them back in Lexington.
JOHN CALIPARI: We know how good they are. We’ve had battles. We were lucky to win down there. They missed a layup. We played pretty good, and they missed shots they normally make at our place which led us to a pretty good win.
But we know -- look, we respect them. We respect their players and what they do and how they play and how hard they play. We’re a little different than them. They’re going to take 35, 40 3s. It’s what they do. We’re not going to shoot that many, but we’ll take them if they’re there, and, you know, it should be a good game. One good thing means that the SEC will have at least one team in the Final Four.
Q. This is your 7th Elite 8 in ten years. Does it get surprising any year? What is it like seeing your group of guys being able to push through?
JOHN CALIPARI: I’m happy for the kids. You know, I have really good players. If you ask some people they would say “I should have won or my team should have won four national titles.” I mean, look, all we try to do is play to the training. We come out every day. Every game is the same. We make it about these kids. I mean, this is about them and their success. We coach every player like they’re a starter, which is why you can go to Immanuel, you can go to Jemarl, you can start EJ, you can even start Nick if you had to. We coach them all the same way, make it about them.
To be where we are still standing when we had Reid out for what, three weeks, we had PJ out for -- how we got through last weekend without him, I have no idea. I’ll say it again, if you take the best player off of any team in the NCAA Tournament, they’re not going to be the same. We just happened to survive.
Q. Tyler, if memory serves, after you sank the 3 that gave Kentucky the lead, you also had those two free throws. Just talk about being able to knock those down and giving yourselves a little bit of breathing room there at the end.
TYLER HERRO: I just brought the ball up. Hit Keldon on the wing and I made the shot. My free throws I just knocked down my normal two free throws.
JOHN CALIPARI: He didn’t listen to me. When he caught it, I said “drive the ball, drive the ball.”
He shot it. I said, “great shot, Tyler. Way to make those plays.”
Q. Coach Calipari, you guys shot 56 percent in the first half. What was working for you guys in the first half and what did you see from Coach Sampson and his team to adjust in the second half defensively?
JOHN CALIPARI: We had good spacing, which gave us great opportunities. In the second half, they kind of took away a pass or two and we didn’t find the open man as well. We still had good looks. When we needed to, we posted the ball.
It’s the one thing I had to remind them of after the game. We’re a post-up team. That’s who we are. It doesn’t mean we won’t throw it out and guys won’t get 3s and we won’t drive the ball. That’s who we are.
So, you know, we got away from it. I don’t know, one the coaches said, “Coach, just post the ball every time down.” That’s what we did to end the game. We just threw it in every single time to the post.
THE MODERATOR: Anything else for the gentlemen -- yes, on the side.
Q. John, you’ve had some players willing to take the big shot and making big shots over your career.
Where does Tyler stand in terms of wanting to take it and making big ones?
JOHN CALIPARI: He wants to take them, but here’s the thing that he’s getting. He took one bad 3 in the game at the top with about 6 seconds. We’re trying to get away from being the team that dances, dances, dances, and shoots the 3 on a late shot cock.
We don’t want to be that guy. He can do both. Did you see the runners he made? Our thing with him is you are not going to be a jump shooter here. You’re going to be a basketball player. You’re going to drive the wall. Yes, you can shoot and make free throws, but you’re not getting to the line until you drive the ball. He’s got runners. He can shoot it lefty. He’s more than just that guy.
But, I said it after the game, when he missed that free throw -- I haven’t seen him miss a free throw in a long, long, long, long, long, long time. He missed that free throw. I looked at my bench. I go this doesn’t look good for us because, you know, when he misses a free throw, this could go south in a hurry.
He made two late and, you know, aside from what he’s doing on offense, he’s become a defensive player. I said it with the last game when we played Wofford. He guarded Magee, which took away his offense and he was fine with it. He went 2 or 11. The other kid went O or 12 or whatever he did. He said I’m going to guard and that’s what I’ll do.
Q. How hard of a guard did it start becoming when they seemed to start to make circus shots? What did the surge feel like, for either of the athletes?
PJ WASHINGTON: I mean, that happened to us a lot in this whole season. We’re pretty used to it. We just had to stay confident in ourselves on both ends of the floor and just try to contest and then come back and try to get a bucket and keep the game close. And we felt like if we did, that we had a good chance ever winning.
TYLER HERRO: The coaches were just stressing to us that we had to leave the floor when they would shoot. I think we didn’t do that a few times and they made a couple tough 3s. Once we left the floor, it made it a tougher shot. They missed them.
THE MODERATOR: Back here in the aisle.
Q. John, how great is it to have the flexibility of having Immanuel and Ashton and when one of them has a bad game, the other one is on? You’ve always had so much confidence in Immanuel’s play. Can you comment on that?
JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah. Immanuel has just gotten so much better. In the tournament the first two games he was tentative. I said, “You can’t be that in these games.” I told him yesterday at the practice, “You’re going to make the 3s that make a difference. You will make them.”
Then he missed shots and I made him shoot it again, shoot the it again. We did a walk-thru this morning, he had to shoot every jump shot. So we ran through stuff. He had to shoot it.
So I have confidence. But I’ll tell who else is playing goods. Jemarl Baker is playing good. Jemarl Baker is demanding. He’s rebounding. I’m confident with him passing to the post and spacing the court.
So, we don’t have that many guys, but the nine that we have, they all can help us, everybody can play.
THE MODERATOR: Anything else for the Wildcats? Okay. Thank you. See you Sunday.