KANSAS CITY, Mo, — It turns out Kentucky needed PJ Washington to beat Houston after all.
Kentucky’s leading scorer blocked a shot to set up Tyler Herro’s go-ahead 3-pointer in the final minute of a 62-58 victory over Houston after scoring 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting in his return from a sprained foot.
UK will face Auburn in the Elite Eight Sunday (2:20 p.m., ET, CBS). The winner advances to the Final Four next weekend in Minneapolis.
Kentucky led by as many as 13 points, but Houston held Kentucky to just 12 points in the first 16:35 minutes of the second half to claw back into the game.
The Cougars took their first lead since the 13:13 mark in the first half on a Corey Davis layup with 3:39 remaining. Washington then tied the game at 51 with two free throws 14 seconds later.
An Armoni Brooks 3-pointer put Houston back in front, and Reid Travis answered with two free throws to pull Kentucky back within one point. Brooks airballed his next 3-point attempt, and Ashton Hagans put Kentucky back in front with two more free throws.
DeJon Jarreau gave the Cougars the lead with a running layup over Washington. Travis was whistled for traveling on Kentucky’s next possession before Davis stretched the lead to three points with a floater in the lane.
Washington had a chance to tie the game on the next possession but missed a free throw after converting a hook shot through contact. He blocked Davis’ shot on the next possession though to set up Herro’s 3-pointer with 25.8 seconds remaining.
Herro, who led Kentucky with 19 points, then hit two free throws with 13.7 seconds remaining to ice the victory.
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► So much for easing back into action: After saying he would be “stunned” if Washington played more than 15-18 minutes in his return from injury, UK coach John Calipari played his star sophomore forward 26 minutes. Washington checked in for the first time at the first media timeout with 15:41 left in the first half and played for the next 3:59 until heading to the bench at the second media timeout. He returned to the court with 10:09 left in the first half and played until the 5:17 mark. Calipari waited just 1:45 into the second half before sending Washington back into the game. This time he stayed on the court for 4:18 before a quick respite on the bench. When Houston cut Kentucky’s lead to five points with 12:34 remaining, Calipari called a timeout in part to put Washington back in the game after just 1:23 on the bench and he stayed on the court for the remainder of the game.
► Size advantage: Despite starting no player taller than 6-foot-8, Houston entered the game with a reputation as a strong rebounding squad with the eighth-best rebounding margin per game in the country (7.8). Kentucky’s size proved to be a far more difficult challenge for the Cougars than its AAC schedule had been though with the Wildcats earning a 36-23 advantage on the boards and 28-22 advantage in points in the paint. Houston’s post players struggled to defend without fouling for most of the night with starting forwards Breaon Brady and Fabian White and 6-foot-8 reserve Brison Gresham all picking up two fouls in the first half.
► Bench help: It was redshirt freshman guard Jemarl Baker who stepped up off the bench in Kentucky’s second-round win over Wofford. Against Auburn, it was freshman guard Immanuel Quickley who filled that role. With starting point guard Ashton Hagans battling foul trouble early, Quickley totaled six points and two rebounds in the first half. He hit two 3-pointers at key moments to cap Kentucky scoring runs.