The Kentucky Wildcats had dominated the Houston Cougars for 25 minutes on Friday night in the Midwest Regional semifinals in Kansas City. The Wildcats hammered Houston on the glass, one of the central areas in which Houston expects to thrive. Kentucky shot the ball over 50 percent in the first half against a notably elite Houston defense.
Kentucky wasn’t just better than Houston; it was better than Houston in the facets of play which were supposed to be the Cougars’ foremost strengths. When a team or athlete dominates an opponent at that opponent’s strongest points, a blowout often ensues.
That’s why the 2019 Houston basketball team is special — even when nothing is going right, it survives, stays upright, and refuses to fall to the canvas after getting decked with combinations of fierce punches.
There they were, the Houston Cougars, pumping in tough shots against Kentucky’s size and length, taking a 58-55 lead into the final minute of regulation time. Kentucky lost the plot and lost its way at the offensive end of the floor, scoring 18 points in 19 second-half minutes.
Would this team, spiraling downward, find ways to gather itself in the one minute it had left, the one minute it had to change the story of this season and avoid the Sweet 16 loss as a higher seed it endured a year ago in “Cat-Lanta” to Kansas State?
Big Blue provided the best answer it could possibly offer. The Wildcats made a series of massive plays and won that final minute 7-0 to beat Houston, 62-58, and advance to Sunday’s regional final against Auburn.
John Calipari was a proud coach. He had every right to be.
“I love our will to win,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “How we played down the stretch… We make our free throws, we defend. But Houston, they’re a terrific team. They were not going to go away. We had to go get balls and do some stuff to beat them, and it was a great win and I’m happy for our guys.”
P.J. Washington meant as much to this team as everyone thought he would, scoring a basket and then blocking a shot which started a secondary break which led to an open 3-pointer by Tyler Herro, who later sealed the win with two free throws after a Houston miss. Kentucky mastered that final minute after Houston came at the Cats in waves the previous several minutes to take a three-point lead.
Kentucky, tested by Wofford in a 62-56 game, used one street fight to show it could win another one.
Kentucky would love to play this kind of game on Sunday. Auburn would love a track meet. Kentucky will be happy to engage in a slugfest.
The Wildcats know how to throw the last — and best — punch.
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