Even as he arrived at the Sprint Center for Kentucky’s showdown with Houston, John Calipari didn’t know for certain whether PJ Washington would play.
The nod he got from Washington when he asked if the star forward was ready just before he checked in early in the first half settled that. What he would be able to contribute on his still-healing sprained left foot was another question entirely.
Washington blew all reasonable expectations on that subject out of the water. “It’s good to have PJ back,” John Calipari said. “We don’t win the game today without him. We don’t.”
That’s no overstatement.
Third-seeded Houston pushed No. 2 UK to the brink and then some. Without the 16 points Washington scored in 26 minutes, the Wildcats could not have hoped to either build a 13-point lead or bounce back for a 62-58 victory after the Cougars erased it. Without his presence on the floor and the inspiration of his example, UK’s season would have ended in the Sweet 16 for the second season in a row.
“I knew there was going to be some pain in it, but I have a high pain tolerance,” Washington said. “I just tried to come out and be aggressive. I knew it was going to hurt a little bit, but I had to fight through it and I’m just glad I was able to do it with a great group of guys.”
Washington assessed his pain as a five on a scale of one to 10 entering the game, but said that quickly dropped to a two when the adrenaline kicked in upon seeing the bright lights and crowd of 17,385 at the Sprint Center. He didn’t start the game, but checked in at the first media timeout to a loud ovation.
“We were just happy to have him back,” Tyler Herro said. “He’s a great leader for us. He just makes the right play every time he gets the ball.”
To Herro’s point, Washington scored on his very first touch with a patented right hook that showed little rust on the heels of a two-week absence. He added a dunk, a smooth jumper and three made free throws to finish with eight points in the first half, playing nine minutes to get halfway to the maximum amount of 18 Coach Cal expected him to play in the game.
He would blow by that after halftime.
Washington spent the first 1:45 of the second half on the bench and checked out for another minute-plus at the 14-minute mark, but then played the final 12:34 without a break. The Cats simply couldn’t afford to have him on the bench and hope to reach the Elite Eight for seventh time under Calipari and a record 34th time overall.
“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,” Calipari said. “You’re not going to push him around. It’s not happening.”
Washington wasn’t quite himself in terms of his overall floor game, but he felt good enough to take over when the Cats needed it most. He was undisputedly the go-to guy in the final five minutes, hitting a huge hook shot with 4:59 left after the Cougars cut UK’s lead to a single point. He made two free throws to tie the game barely 90 seconds later, then was poised to tie the game with 55 seconds left when he scored and drew a foul on Fabian White.
“When we were down three, we knew as long as we kept it close we had a chance to win the game,” Washington said. “I just told the guys, ‘Just keep your heads up and keep playing. It’s a long game and we just gotta get some stops and we’ll be fine.’ ”
When Washington missed the free throw that would have tied the game, he took it upon himself to get the decisive stop for his team. Houston’s Corey Davis broke free for a floater that would have given the Cougars a three-point lead, but Washington had other ideas.
“I knew he was trying to shoot it,” Washington said. “He’s their leading scorer, so I tried to help off my guy a little bit, fake at my guy and then go back to trying to get the block. I just tried to be aggressive with it.”
The aggressiveness paid off, as Washington showed no ill effects from his injury and swatted the shot into Herro’s waiting hands. On the ensuing possession, Herro buried a game-winning 3.
“That’s just a will to win by (Washington),” Immanuel Quickley said. “Just a will to win. Sometimes that’s what it takes to get big wins like that in a Sweet 16 game. I know he was here last year and they came up a little bit short, so I’m just happy to get the win for him and happy to get the win for this program.”
With memories of last year’s Sweet 16 loss fresh in his mind, Washington wasn’t about to sit like he had to last weekend.
“I’m a competitor,” Washington said. “I love the game of basketball. I’ve been playing since I was 5 years old, so just to sit on the sideline last week hurt me. I felt like I definitely could have impacted those games, so I tried to come out and be aggressive and help my teammates get a win.”
Washington and the Cats are now just a win away from the Final Four. They will take on fifth-seeded Auburn at 2:20 p.m. ET on Sunday, but not before Washington gets plenty of treatment and some well-deserved rest.
“I need that,” Washington said. “I definitely need that. It’s definitely hurting me right now, but I’m just glad to be out here and to affect the game with my teammates is a great feeling. How hard we worked the whole season, to be here is just a blessing.”