ATLANTA — PJ Washington, with the confounding final game of his freshman season at Kentucky, was a perfectly imperfect poster boy for these young Wildcats: so good in flashes, so dominant in some ways, and yet also so fatally flawed it was bound to bite them eventually.
Kansas State, of all teams, with a hobbled star and its whole roster in foul trouble, provided the teeth Thursday night in the Sweet 16. Those other Wildcats won 61-58 , bringing a strange season for John Calipari and Co. to its startling conclusion.
Instead of a widely predicted cake walk to the Final Four — 11 th-seeded Loyola-Chicago was waiting in the Elite Eight — Kentucky suffered its first regional semifinal loss in seven tries under Calipari. It did so because old habits returned to haunt the Cats against K-State.
Remember when Washington looked like a golfer with the yips this summer, bricking free throws left and right for the Calipari-coached under-19 USA Basketball team? That problem, less glaring all season at Kentucky, reared its ugly head again Thursday at the worst possible time.
Washington was otherwise brilliant, going for 18 points, 15 rebounds, 3 steals and a block in 40 minutes, but he also made just 8 of 20 free throws in a game Kentucky lost by three.
“I didn’t play good at all,” Washington said. “If I would’ve made at least half of those, we would have won the game.”
Of course, if he hadn’t been a glass-crashing, paint-pounding, foul-inducing monster, the fifth-seeded Wildcats from Lexington would’ve gotten run out of the gym by the ninth-seeded Wildcats from Kansas. But the muscled-up, 6-foot-7 former McDonald’s All-American tried to drag Kentucky to victory.
He gave the Cats, who’d trailed by a dozen in the first half and as many as nine in the second, a rare lead on a putback with 1:32 to go. He tied the game on a free throw with 1:14 remaining. He delivered a freakish block with 49 seconds left.
“If he didn’t play the way he played, we would’ve lost the game by 15, 20 points. He was the backbone of our team tonight,” sophomore Sacha Killeya-Jones said. “He should be proud of the way he played and how he rebounded and fought for us.”
Washington got KSU’s entire team in foul trouble, it seemed, and fouled out three of them in the final five minutes. He set a new career high for rebounds and threatened his career high in scoring. If only he hadn’t left a dozen points on the table. Or, rather, at the line.
So while he appreciated his teammates’ support — “I’m sure it’s weighing on him, but just keep your head high, just know we love each other forever, you played great and we never would’ve been in that game without you,” sophomore Wenyen Gabriel said — Washington doesn’t want to be let off the hook.
“If I make the free throws, we win the game. It’s that simple,” he said, knowing that he’d made all six free throws in one game this season, all nine attempts in another and recently hit 10 of 14. “But I missed them, so we lost.”
Well, there was a lot more to it than that. Freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, star of Kentucky’s postseason to this point, laid an egg in the second half against Kansas State. He finished 2 of 10 shooting with five turnovers (many of them in crunch time) and missed the potential game-tying three.
That came after Quade Green launched a wild, unnecessary 3-pointer that missed with 9 seconds left and UK down 2. In the biggest moment of the season, the Cats delivered their worst offensive performance: 38 percent from the field, 3 of 12 from deep, 6 assists to 15 turnovers and a season-low 58 points.
It didn’t seem like Kentucky “drank the poison,” as Calipari warned all week, trying to ward off overconfidence as a result of all the underdogs left in the South Region with the Wildcats. It was more like a team relying exclusively on seven freshmen and two sophomores — talented enough to have won 9 of 10 coming into Thursday’s game and flawed enough to have lost four straight before that — acted its age one more time.
This was a missed opportunity to be sure, a Final Four run no one saw coming and now never will see, but also a valuable lesson for a team expected to lose fewer players to the NBA draft than usual around here.
“I learned a lot from Coach Cal, a lot from these guys,” Washington said. “This was one of my favorite years of my whole life. All 12 of these guys made me better every day — especially Coach Cal, how he pushed me to do better in practice. I learned to fight with my brothers. Some days, when shots aren’t falling, just continue to fight — fight for each other, fight for everything you have, not for the name on your back but the name on the front.”
And with that, Washington might’ve gone from the perfect poster boy for a flawed 2017-18 team to the face and voice of the 2018-19 Wildcats, a fan favorite in the making, assuming he wants to come back to school and fix that free-throw thing.
The post Kentucky basketball: In the end, PJ Washington as ferocious and flawed as his team appeared first on SEC Country.
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