Off a heart-stopping 62-58 victory over Houston late Friday night, the Kentucky Wildcats advance to Sunday’s Midwest regional championship to face perhaps the hottest team in the tournament in the Auburn Tigers.
Tip time from Kansas City is 2:20 ET, and CBS will be on the coverage. You can stream the game online or on your mobile device using NCAA March Madness Live.
For UK (30-6), the Cats opened up a 37-26 halftime advantage over the Cougars and needed every point of it in the second half as Houston whittled away the entire lead and took a 58-54 lead late in the game.
But PJ Washington and Tyler Herro came to the Cats rescue; first with Washington’s hook shot to bring the Cats within one at 58-57 and blocking a Cougar shot on the next play, giving Herro a chance to drill a three-pointer on the ensuing possession to give Kentucky the lead back at 60-58. After another Cougar miss, Herro hit two free throws to set the final margin.
Herro led the Cats with 19 points, but it was the return of Washington that made the difference in the win, scoring 16 points off the bench in his first tournament action. Kentucky’s defense and rebounding were huge as well, holding the Cougars to 38% shooting from the field and out-rebounding Houston 37-24.
Without question, though, the biggest challenge of the tournament for these Cats will be Sunday as an obscenely hot Auburn squad. After surviving New Mexico State 78-77 in the opening round, The Tigers (29-9) have laid waste to Kansas and North Carolina to march into the Midwest final.
Against the top-seeded Tar Heels, Auburn shot a blistering 55% from the field and a staggering 46% from three (17-37). Coach Bruce Pearl has done a masterful job since losing to UK 80-53 on February 23rd, leading the Tigers to 11 consecutive wins and a SEC tournament title behind relentless offense and pressure defense.
“We know how good they are,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We’ve had battles. We were lucky to win down there (a 82-80 victory at Auburn); they missed a layup. We played pretty good and they missed shots they normally make at our place. We respect them.”
What to Watch For
How will the injury to Chuma Okeke affect the Tigers? The sophomore forward was playing great against UNC, scoring 20 points and grabbing 11 rebounds before suffering an awful knee injury in the second half.
An emotional Auburn coach Bruce Pearl acknowledged “we think it could be serious.” No one wants to have this type of injury happen, especially with such a big game on the horizon. Losing Okeke’s production affects the dynamic for the Tigers, but the injury could either take the wind completely out of the sails for War Eagle or could galvanize the club even more. Something to watch for.
Can the Cats regain their advantage on the post? In the first two rounds of the tournament, UK was able to get whatever they wanted on the block with Reid Travis scoring and rebounding at will.
But against the Cougars, the Cats found the sledding a little more difficult as Houston ran double teams all night at Travis and clogging the lane up. Auburn is very similar to the Cougars in size and will look to harass the UK bigs. Losing their best post player in Okeke is a huge loss in this respect. Without his presence, the Tigers could struggle around the basket.
The Cats gotta get out on the Auburn shooters. If the Cats don’t get out on the Tiger gunners, led by guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, it could be a long night for UK. Auburn looks for the three at every opportunity from anywhere on the floor.
All nine Tigers will shoot the trifecta, so its paramount that Kentucky get out to them and challenge them to put the ball on the floor. The Cats don’t want to get into trading threes for twos most of the night.
Prediction: The Cats have the defense and rebounding to win the matchup. If Uk defends the three well and controls the tempo, then they should make the trip to Minneapolis and the Final Four.
Cats 78, Tigers 71
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