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It was Sweet (16) redemption for a returning PJ Washington

After the nightmare in Atlanta a year ago, Kentucky’s emotional leader returned from a foot injury on Friday night and came through with the biggest performance of his career.

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Houston v Kentucky
PJ Washington returned to action off a foot injury to score 16 points, helping Kentucky reach the Elite Eight for the seventh time in the last 10 seasons.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The only number that the Big Blue Nation remembers from PJ Washington’s 18-point, 15-rebound game in Atlanta during the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 a season ago is 12.

Twelve is the number of free throws Washington missed in 20 attempts during Kentucky’s 61-58 to Kansas State that ended a potential Final Four run. Washington’s social media mentions were filled with toxic replies to his struggles, not knowing the freshman (at the time) was playing for months with a broken pinky that later required a surgical procedure.

“Not at all. I’m a different player from last year,” Washington said when he asked about if he thought back to those misses after not completing a three-point play with 55 seconds to play that could’ve tied the game at 58 against Houston on Friday night.

“I didn’t either,” Kentucky coach John Calipari added. “We were throwing him the ball and I’m so confident as a coach when he’s on the floor.”

Instead of that miss hurting the Cats, it laid the groundwork for one of the best redemption stories in recent history for Kentucky basketball.

21 seconds of game time later, Washington trekked across the lane on Houston guard Corey Harris Jr.’s drive to the basket and swatted away a potential three-point lead for the Cougars, leading to Tyler Herro’s clutch 3-pointer with about 25 ticks left to help send Kentucky to the Elite Eight for the seventh time in the last 10 seasons.

After missing Kentucky’s first two NCAA Tournament games with a sprained left foot, Washington returned to his role as the team’s emotional leader, scoring 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting with the game-saving block and the game-clinching rebound because, well ... of course he did.

PJ Washington grabs the game-sealing rebound. Of course he did.

“We don’t win this without PJ,” Chris Herro told The Athletic’s Kyle Tucker in a fantastic father-son piece on the Herros and Washingtons.

“And I knew it. I called him,” Herro said. “I called that man right when PJ got hurt and I said, ‘Bro, we ain’t doing nothing unless PJ plays. That’s how this works. PJ is the key to all this shit.’ I said, ‘We need PJ to go all the way.’ ”

Tyler’s father is absolutely correct. For Kentucky to win a national title, PJ Washington needed to return and thankfully for the BBN, he did that and then some. Not bad for a guy that he himself wasn’t even sure he was going to play, despite all of the hoopla over the last couple weeks with the severity of his foot injury.

Between the hard cast with the boot, Washington saying the pain was at a “10” on a scale from 1-10 last weekend before the Wofford game, the “Boomerang” that sparked the #PJChallenge and no definite answer from anyone on whether or not Washington would return to action on Friday, the fan base’s blood pressure was soaring by the minute.

On top of all that, Calipari said in his immediate post-game interview that Washington didn’t participate in Friday’s morning shootaround. Much of his own teammates didn’t have a clue that Washington was going to play against Houston despite going through warmups.

Thanks to some pain pills and a major rush of adrenaline, everything set the stage for Washington’s return and what a return it was.

The right-handed hooks, the mean mugs, the big-time, only-All-Americans-make-that-play-types of plays helped Washington carry his team to a win away from the Final Four.

Washington has been confirmed to be off for Kentucky’s practice on Saturday to ice his left foot (just like he did after Friday’s win) and relax before Sunday’s showdown with a hot Auburn bunch.

This journey is exactly what Washington wanted when he returned for a sophomore campaign after testing at the NBA Draft Combine last summer.

“I learned a lot during my freshman season and became a better player, but I think I’ve only scratched the surface. With everything I’ve learned, I want to lead this team and compete for a championship,” Washington said on Calipari’s “Coach Cal” website.

With two more victories, Washington will have a chance to truly complete his redemption story with a storybook ending to this season and more than likely, his career at Kentucky.