KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The pain can wait.
P.J. Washington’s sprained left foot aches, and not even the pain killers he took before the game can dull it completely. But he’d be damned if he was going to spend another NCAA tournament game on the bench, knowing he could help his Kentucky teammates and being unable to do it.
When John Calipari looked at Washington three minutes into the game against Houston on Friday night, Washington nodded. He was ready to go. Ready to play the rest of the game if that’s what it took to get the Wildcats to the Elite Eight.
“I just had to fight through it and keep playing,” Washington said.
Playing doesn’t seem adequate enough to describe what Washington did against the Cougars. While Tyler Herro was the, well, hero for Kentucky, scoring a team-high 19 points that included the go-ahead 3-pointer with just under 26 seconds left, it was Washington on whom the game turned.
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Kentucky had blown a 13-point lead in the second half, and found itself trailing with less than two minutes to play. Washington’s jump hook with just under 56 seconds left cut Houston’s lead to 58-57, and he had a chance to tie it when he drew a foul.
But he missed the free throw and Houston’s DeJon Jarreau grabbed the rebound.
Washington was guarding Jarreau, but he kept one eye on Corey Davis. Davis was Houston’s leading scorer and, at some point, the ball was going to wind up in his hands. When he saw Davis rise to shoot, Washington did, too.
“I just tried to time it and, fortunately, I got it,” Washington said.
Washington swatted the ball and Herro snagged it. He sprinted to the other end and squared up for that go-ahead 3. Davis would take another shot, but Ashton Hagans wouldn’t give him a clean look. Herro was fouled and he made both shots to seal the 62-58 win.
“Without P.J.,” Herro said, “probably we don’t win the game.”
Washington finished with 16 points, making all but two of the eight shots he took. He played almost 26 minutes, far more than Calipari had speculated he might when his leading scorer’s availability was still a hypothetical.
“It’s good to have P.J. back. We don’t win the game today without him. We don’t,” Calipari said. “What he did and how – 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.
“You’re not going to push him around.”
There’s a message there for those who questioned Washington’s heart last weekend.
Washington sprained his foot in Kentucky’s loss to Tennessee in the SEC tournament semifinals. When he missed last weekend’s games, some suggested he was overdramatizing the injury, preferring to sit out and protect his draft stock.
If that was the case, he, Calipari and Kentucky did one heck of an acting job.
Washington was in a cast until Tuesday and didn’t practice until Thursday. He didn’t participate in shootaround, and hopped into the locker room after the game with his foot encased in a bag of ice.
“It’s on 10 right now. It’s definitely hurting,” Washington said when asked the level of pain. “I’m just trying to ice it right now, trying to get some treatment and get some sleep.”
But he played. And he’ll play Sunday against Auburn, where a trip to the Final Four will be on the line. Because the pain of not playing, of having to watch Kentucky’s fortunes rest in someone else’s hands, is far worse than the pain in his foot.
“To sit on the sidelines last weekend kind of hurt,” Washington said. “I felt like I could have impacted those games.”
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Washington’s foot isn’t broken, and doctors have said he won’t damage it any further by playing. It’s a matter, instead, of how much he can take. And at this time of year, when every game could be Kentucky’s last, Washington will endure just about anything.
The pain can wait. It has to, because Washington and Kentucky’s title aspirations will not.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.