Tyler Herro hit a 3-pointer with 25.8 seconds left to give Kentucky the lead after Houston had erased a double-digit lead, and the Wildcats escaped their NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal with a 62-58 win over Houston Friday night.
Herro’s huge basket gave the Wildcats a 60-58 lead and came after Houston’s Corey Davis Jr. had his driving shot swatted away by PJ Washington, who was making his return after missing the first two tournament games with a left foot injury.
Davis missed what would have been a tying layup before Herro hit two more free throws to secure the win and send the second-seeded Wildcats to the Elite Eight for the seventh time in 10 years, Kentucky will face Southeastern Conference rival Auburn for a trip to the Final Four.
Herro led the Wildcats (30-6) with 19 points and Washington added 16.
Houston (33-4), in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1984, used a 17-6 surge to finish a comeback from 13 points down early in the second half. Armoni Brooks, who finished with 20 points, made three of his six 3-pointers during the run, the last a fade-away from the corner to tie it at 49. Davis then muscled a shot over Reid Travis in the lane with 3:39 left for the Cougars’ first lead since 13 minutes left in the first half.
After Washington made two free throws to tie it, Brooks struck again, this time from the right side, to make it 54-51.
The Cougars couldn’t quite finish the job. Davis’ floater made it 58-55 before Washington scored over Fabian White Jr. to make it a one-point game. He missed the tying free throw, and then raced to the other end to block Davis’ shot and turn the momentum back to Kentucky.
The Wildcats had been playing since March 16 without Washington, who spained his left foot in the SEC Tournament against Tennessee. His status was a mystery right up until the first media timeout, when he entered to a standing ovation from fans behind the Kentucky bench.
He showed no effects from the injury, scoring in the lane on his first shot and converting Keldon Johnson’s entry pass into a big dunk. Next, he passed out of a double team to Immanuel Quickley, who swished a 3-pointer from the corner, and then he hit a mid-range jumper for a 21-14 lead at the midway point in the first half.
Wildcats coach John Calipari had said Thursday that he would be “stunned” if Washington played more than 15-18 minutes, if he played at all. He played 26.
Houston: The Cougars’ best season since the Phi Slama Jama teams comes to an end. Convincing wins over double-digit seeds Georgia State and Ohio State were one thing, but the Cougars were going to be hard-pressed to advance against a Kentucky team near full strength with Washington’s return. They almost did it.
Kentucky: The Wildcats look formidable now that Washington is back. Kentucky came out blazing against the nation’s top field-goal defense and then gutted out a ragged second half thanks to Herro’s big 3-pointer.
Kentucky beat Auburn twice in the regular season.