Everyone loves a great comeback story.
Who could forget Willis Reed leading the New York Knicks to the 1970 NBA title despite playing with a severe thigh injury. How about watching Kirk Gibson hobble around the bases after hitting a game-winning home run in the 1988 World Series at Dodger Stadium. And then there’s Tiger Woods winning the 2008 US Open on a broken leg at Torrey Pines. All classic moments in sports history.
If you’re a Kentucky Wildcats fan, you can now add one more to the list as PJ Washington’s performance on Friday night in Kansas City will forever have a special place in UK lore after the All-American forward returned from a foot injury to lift the Wildcats to a 62-58 win over Houston to advance to the Elite Eight on Sunday.
Today, Washington met with the media to preview Sunday’s matchup with the Auburn Tigers. While he’s still in pain, Washington is not wearing a boot and expects to play Sunday.
No boot, no limp as PJ walks to talk nterview area— Jerry Tipton (@JerryTipton) March 30, 2019
PJ Washington “I don’t know if I’m starting but I’m definitely feeling good.”— Big Blue Drew (@BigBlueDrew33) March 30, 2019
PJ says foot feels OK, about the same as it did yesterday. About a 5 of 10 on the pain scale.— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_ATH) March 30, 2019
Washington, UK’s leading scorer and rebounder this season, was a game-day decision on Friday after missing the first two NCAA games with an injured left foot. In fact, he had a hard cast on earlier in the week and had described his pain as a “10 out of 10” prior to postseason play.
On Tuesday, the cast was removed and the “PJ Watch” hit a fever pitch on Wednesday afternoon when the 6-foot-8 forward took to social media to post a short video of himself walking toward the court in blue Nike basketball shoes. He practiced for the first time since the SEC Tournament on Thursday to fuel speculation about a possible return against the No. 3 seeded Cougars.
The rest of the story will forever be a part of UK Basketball history.
”He did not go through the shoot around today. His foot was bothering him,” said UK Coach John Calipari during his live post-game interview on TBS. “I just didn’t know if he was playing. I asked him right before, ‘Are you going to be able to go and he said I’m going.’”
Washington entered the game at the 15:41 mark in the first half and scored 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field in 26 minutes of action. He also had a huge blocked shot to set up Tyler Herro’s game-winning three-pointer with 26 seconds remaining. Herro finished with 19 points, including two huge free throws to ice the game in the closing seconds.
”I didn’t want to let my teammates down,” said Washington of his decision to play. “I knew if I was in the game, I feel like we had a chance to win so I just sucked it up and came out to play.”
With the victory, Calipari has now made 10 Elite Eight appearances in his last 14 seasons as a head coach dating back to his time at Memphis. Calipari is also now the winningest NCAA Tournament coach in Kentucky basketball history, passing the legendary Adolph Rupp.
“We don’t win the game today without him. We don’t,” said Calipari of Washington’s performance against Houston. “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.”
Washington, who said he took pain killers prior to the game, said his only real concern about returning to the court was related to possible mobility issues.
“I could run up and down, it was just moving side to side that was bothering me,” said Washington. “But I just had to buckle down and keep playing. I felt if I kept my feet moving, it would be a little less pain, so I tried to do that and be mobile.”
The Wildcats will now prepare for Auburn, who rolled through the SEC Tournament and currently have an 11-game winning streak. The Tigers knocked off No. 1 seeded North Carolina 97-80 on Friday to set up an All-SEC showdown on Sunday.
“We know how good they are. We’ve had battles.” said Calipari. “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.”
And you can bet that Auburn coach Bruce Pearl and his team will show great respect for PJ Washington, who will continue treatment and prepare to fight another day.
That’s what legends do.