Busting Brackets

NCAA Tournament 2019: Kentucky escapes Houston behind Tyler Herro dagger

LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY - FEBRUARY 26: Tyler Herro #14 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates in the game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Rupp Arena on February 26, 2019 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY - FEBRUARY 26: Tyler Herro #14 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates in the game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Rupp Arena on February 26, 2019 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

Five heart attacks and a wild night in downtown Lexington later, Kentucky Basketball survived Houston’s comeback and is headed to the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament

Tyler Herro is a bucket. P.J. Washington is a MAN. State Street is absolute pandemonium. This is Kentucky Basketball. The Cats are in the Elite 8 for the seventh time in John Calipari’s ten-year tenure. Friday evening into the wee early morning hours of Saturday morning was one heck of a ride for the Big Blue Nation, and its end result was magnificent and forever memorable. Here’s to everything and everyone that made this an extra sweet sixteen matchup.

Tyler Herro

Tyler Herro. WE LOVE HIM IN LEXINGTON! He’s a bucket, an absolute bucket. Tyler told us, P.J. told us, and now the whole country knows (especially the crazies down in Texas). That shot sent Aaron Harrison chills pulsing through my body. It was cupid’s arrow for Tyler; because now, he’s captured the hearts of Kentucky fans for eternity. With one pure stroke, Herro cemented himself into Kentucky fan lore. As a high school kid and hopeful Kentucky basketball recruit, you dream of that shot. As soon as he slid the ball to Keldon on the wing, Tyler immediately barked at his fellow freshman teammate for a return pass. He got it. Calipari wanted him to drive, but Herro’s mind was set in stone. As soon as the sticky leather orb touched his hands, he morphed into Midas. That ball was gold and would lash nylon. Tyler had one-thousand confidence and zero doubt. If you’ve watched him since his junior year in high school, you’d know his opinion on big games: “this is my stage” to quote a former title-winning Kentuckian.

From the moment I witnessed Herro’s first jumper in the Bahamas: the swift elevation, sharp release, and exuberant confidence, it was clear that clutch buckets would be routine for Tyler. He’s almost robotic in his indifference toward the spotlight. His palms remain dry, his mind is laser-focused, and his stroke is lethal in the brightest moments. Against Houston, nearly every time Kentucky needed a basket to preserve momentum, Tyler was the answer. Oh, and his defense was phenomenal…again. There is just no better way to put other than HE IS A BUCKET!

Paul Jamaine Washington Jr.

MAN. M. A. N. You can have your Zion’s and R.J.’s and whoever else’s, I’ll take P.J. in my corner.

My man was caught up in a soap opera in the days leading up to the game regarding his injury: what’s the deal with his foot? How did he hurt it? Is the cast off? Did he practice? Is he going to play? How much is he going to play? How much pain is there? All these questions were answered with one ruthless, locked-in, gritty performance by Washington. Despite the pain and the fact he hadn’t played in two weeks, P.J. stepped up and willed the Cats to victory. I never want to hear a Kentucky fan complain about Washington EVER again.

He played half of last season with a broken pinky, and was in obvious pain tonight after playing far more minutes than he should have on an injured toe, and was still the best player on the court in a SWEET SIXTEEN game. P.J. is tougher than a two dollar steak, and was dominant tonight when in the game. His presence calms–on both sides of the ball. Calipari put it best when he serenaded him with praise afterward, claiming that Kentucky could not have won without him. That’s not a hypothetical, that’s a fact.

Everyone’s seen Tyler’s big shot, but P.J. made two terrific plays on offense and defense that were equally vital. First, the and-one coming out of the timeout. With the season on the line and in desperate need of a score, Kentucky went to its heart and soul: P.J. As play resumed, the ball found P.J. in the post. Same story, different location. Fake to the right, turn to the left, baby hook, foul, and one. BOOM. With under a minute to play, Washington had just failed out the Cougars’ best big man and cut the lead to one with a foul shot coming. He did miss, but hustled back and was in perfect position to swat Corey Davis’ layup attempt with 30 seconds remaining. He slapped the ball to Tyler, and he finished another storybook ending for Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament.

P.J. Washington, WE LOVE HIM!

Houston’s Comeback

The thrill of victory for one side means the depression of defeat on the other. For Kelvin Sampson and seniors Corey Davis and Galen Robinson, I salute you. Admittedly, in my mind, I downplayed Houston coming into the game and figured Kentucky would emerge victorious. They did, but by the skin of their teeth. After jumping out to a 13 point lead early in the second stanza, it looked like the Cats were sprinting to the Elite 8. Alas, that script was flipped. Amroni Brooks came out gangbusters in the second half, and was hitting every prayer he threw up (and trust me, some of those were prayers). Hands in his face, meters behind the three-point arc, it didn’t matter, Brooks was in the zone.

Behind his barrage, suffocating defense, and a few crafty Corey Davis and Dejon Jarreau drives to the basket, Houston clawed back and took a three-point lead late in the game. I’ll spare you from re-listening to the remaining details (although I’ll run through them again if you really want me to). Houston was under-covered by the college basketball media due to their residence in a conference of relative indifference on the national scale. But make no mistake, Houston was legit this year. Kelvin Sampson truly is “the Houston Redemption.”

On to Auburn and a Chance at Minneapolis

The ecstasy of a Sweet Sixteen victory can only last mere hours, as an Elite 8 matchup with a scorching hot Auburn Tiger squad looms large Sunday afternoon. Kentucky narrowly beat Bruce Pearl’s club on the road in January due to (guess what?) a pair of game-winning free throws by Tyler Herro. On the return trip to Lexington, Kentucky trounced the Tigers in 80-53 fashion. After that debacle, I filed Auburn away from a contender standpoint. But, since then, Auburn is undefeated and boasts the longest winning streak in the country. They’ll be a load to handle a third time around, especially if their three-point assassins are as accurate as advertised the past couple weeks.

The game should be a fun one, but a bit of a shadow has been cast over the Final Four qualifier. Midway through the second half of Auburn’s demolition of North Carolina, emerging superstar sophomore forward Chuma Okeke (who was in the midst of the game of his life) went down with what appeared to be a horrific injury. From the replay to the way Okeke writhed with pain and clutched his right knee, an ACL tear seemed more-than-likely. He was helped off the court and back to the locker room, where he slapped the Auburn name onto the advancement board after the victory. Reports Saturday afternoon indicate that Okeke does, in fact, have a torn ACL. My heart breaks for the kid. He was sensational Friday night and is a joy to watch from game to game. Awful news.

Next. Takeaways from last night's action. dark

This win wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t remotely entertaining, and it probably sent my grandfather’s blood pressure sailing through the ceiling. But, a win is a win. And this particular win brought out that oh so familiar joy of being a lifelong Kentucky basketball fan. The postseason ride has been splendid so far. Now, let’s rake up the medal and catch that elusive ninth National Championship in program history.

Deep Breath. Sigh. We’ve survived and advanced. Let’s go send big Bruce packing! Go Cats!