Kentucky got PJ Washington back just in time, Duke hung on without Cam Reddish, and Auburn’s thrill from a huge win was tempered by a potentially serious injury to Chuma Okeke.
The injury questions piled up in NCAA Sweet 16 games in the East and Midwest regions, all with the potential to affect who earns the final two spots in the Final Four on Sunday.
Washington’s status as the Wildcats’ top scorer and rebounder had been one of the most discussed topics of the tournament’s opening weekend. The 6-foot-8 sophomore didn’t play in the first two games due to an injury to his left foot that required a hard cast, and coach John Calipari had been noncommittal about his status entering Friday’s win against Houston.
Washington turned in a big performance (16 points on 6-for-8 shooting) but made his biggest play with a critical block at the rim on Corey Davis Jr. to set up Tyler Herro’s go-ahead 3-pointer in the final seconds.
Yet to listen to Washington, it wasn’t easy. And now the second-seeded Wildcats must see how Washington’s foot responds.
“I took some pain pills before the game,” Washington said. “Kind of started hurting in the second half, but I had to tough through it. 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.”
Kentucky will face Auburn in an all-Southeastern Conference regional final after the fifth-seeded Tigers beat Midwest Region top seed North Carolina. But amid the Tigers’ 3-point barrage and freewheeling flow was the concern over Okeke, who had 20 points and 11 rebounds before crashing to the floor when his left knee buckled on a drive with about eight minutes left.
Okeke was down for an extended period and was helped to the tunnel. Afterward, coach Bruce Pearl was fighting back tears in an on-court TV interview, and there was the emotional locker-room sight of Okeke — with a bag of ice on his left knee — being helped by teammates to apply a sticker to a bracket showing Auburn advancing to its first regional final since 1986.
“We don’t know the status,” Pearl said, “but we think it could be serious.”
For Duke, coach Mike Krzyzewski said the Blue Devils found out right before the narrow win against Virginia Tech that Reddish was dealing with a knee problem.
“He went out, he just said something was wrong with his knee,” Krzyzewski said. “He was limping. … That’s another thing for our guys to be able to overcome that adversity, because we’ve prepared all week with that lineup and then — boom — right before the start of the game he can’t play.”
Reddish came in as the team’s No. 3 scorer (13.6 points) behind star freshmen Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett along with a team-high 87 3-pointers this season. Duke offset his loss thanks to a career-high 22 points by freshman point guard Tre Jones, who bucked his season average (27 percent) by hitting five 3-pointers.
Krzyzewski said he didn’t know whether Reddish would be ready Sunday against Michigan State.
The second-seeded Spartans got their own scare with big man Nick Ward appearing to reinjure his left hand in the win against LSU. He had been playing with a brace on the hand after missing five games due to a hairline fracture, but coach Tom Izzo described it as a bone bruise and Ward said he would be ready to go Sunday.