By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky had just survived a huge Houston comeback to beat the Cougars 62-58 to reach the NCAA Tournament thanks in part to two huge plays — an old-fashioned 3-point play and a blocked shot — by PJ Washington in the final minute of Friday night’s game.
Coach John Calipari, his players and UK fans were giddy and certainly ready to start thinking about Sunday’s Elite Eight matchup with Auburn, a team it beat twice during the season.
Remember Washington was also coming back after missing UK’s first two NCAA Tournament wins with a sprained left foot and no one, including Calipari, knowing if he would even be able to play before he went out and scored 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting in 26 minutes.
Yet guess what the first question Washington got at the podium after the game was: “PJ, when you missed those two free throws, especially coming down the stretch as Houston was charging, did you kind of flashback to Sweet 16 last year?”
That was a throwback to last year’s Sweet Sixteen loss to Kansas State when Washington was UK’s leading rebounder and scorer but missed 12 free throws. Not a question about his ankle, the key 3-point play or the huge block. No, the question wanted him to relive those missed free throws.
Give Washington credit. He handled the question with grace.
“Not at all. I’m a different player from last year,” Washington said.
Coach John Calipari wasn’t going to leave his player hanging out to dry.
“I didn’t, either. We were throwing him the ball. I’m so confident with him on the court as a coach,” Calipari said.
So confident that Calipari didn’t hesitate to draw up that play for Washington with UK’s season on the line — and the sophomore delivered despite playing in pain. Calipari quickly said in his postgame interview that without Washington, UK doesn’t win. He was right, too.
“I took some pain pills before the game. Kind of started hurting in the second half, but I have to tough through it,” Washington said. “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.”