EditorsNote: adds quotes
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Tyler Herro was the hero as second-seeded Kentucky escaped with a 62-58 victory over third-seeded Houston in the second Midwest Region semifinal Friday night at Sprint Center.
The Wildcats next will face fifth-seeded Auburn, which used a strong second half to defeat top-seeded North Carolina 97-80 in the first semifinal.
Herro hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 25.8 seconds left, then drained a pair of free throws with 13.7 seconds remaining to ice the victory. Herro led the Wildcats with 19 points.
Asked about Herro’s willingness to take shots at crucial times, Kentucky coach John Calipari said, “He wants to take them, but here’s the thing that he’s getting. He took one bad 3 in the game at the top with about six seconds (left on the shot clock). We’re trying to get away from being the team that dances, dances, dances, and shoots the 3 on a late shot clock.”
Kentucky (30-6) opened the second half with a bucket for its largest lead of the game, 39-26, but the Cougars (33-4) chipped away, eventually tying the score at 49-all with 4:24 left. When Corey Davis Jr. hit a layup with 3:39 remaining, Houston had its first lead since 3-2.
“I believed we would win even when we were down 11 at the half. We’ve been down more,” Houston senior forward Breaon Brady said. “So it’s tough not to finish and win. But now, it’s up to the younger guys to carry on what we’ve built: 33-4.”
After Kentucky’s PJ Washington sank a pair of free throws to tie the score, Houston’s Armoni Brooks hit a long 3-pointer. Four consecutive free throws gave the Wildcats the lead with just over two minutes left.
Back-to-back buckets pushed the Cougars to a three-point lead as the clock clicked under a minute.
Washington was fouled as made a bucket inside, but he missed the free throw that would have tied it. He redeemed himself with a block on a layup attempt by Davis. Herro then drained his trey, putting the Wildcats on top 60-58.
The Wildcats took it in stride when the Cougars began to hit their shots, sometimes in the face of tight defense, according to Washington.
“I mean, that happened to us a lot in this whole season,” Washington said. “We’re pretty used to it. We just had to stay confident in ourselves on both ends of the floor and just try to contest and then come back and try to get a bucket and keep the game close. And we felt like if we did that we had a good chance of winning.”
Davis missed a contested layup before Herro hit the final two free throws.
Kentucky will now face SEC rival Auburn. The Wildcats have beaten the Tigers twice this season, 82-80 on Jan. 19 in Alabama and 80-53 in Lexington, Ky., on Feb. 23, Auburn’s last loss.
“(Auburn is) playing great right now,” Calipari said. “They went through our conference tournament, like nine wins in a row? What is it? Eleven in a row. They’re playing and shooting it. They’re playing defense, getting their hands on balls.”
The defensive struggle was expected, as Houston ranked seventh in the country in scoring defense at 61.0 points allowed per game. Kentucky was 28th at 64.5. In their first two NCAA Tournament games, Kentucky allowed an average of 50 points while Houston allowed an average of 57.
“I think they played great defense,” Herro said of the Cougars. “I think that’s kind of their identity is just being a hard-nosed defensive team. Credit to them. They played great defense and made it hard on me.”
Houston was led by Brooks with 20 points. Davis added 14 and Galen Robinson had 10. Davis was shooting 42 percent from long range this season, but he was just 1-for-7 from beyond the arc against Kentucky.
“Kentucky is a great team,” Houston guard DeJon Jarreau said. “They outplayed us in the first half, but in the second half, we played Cougar basketball. We brought our all, but everything comes to an end.”
Washington, who missed Kentucky’s first two NCAA Tournament games with a foot sprain, did not start. He entered the game with 15:41 left in the first half. He scored his first points of the tournament at the 15:06 mark on a baseline jumper and finished with 16 points.
“It’s good to have PJ back,” Calipari said. “We don’t win the game today without him. We don’t.”
The postgame message from Houston coach Kelvin Sampson to his team was “to remember this feeling,” Brady said.
“That was the message to the younger guys. It’s their time now, for the incoming freshmen and the underclassmen,” Brady said.
—Field Level Media