Calipari

John Calipari directed Kentucky against Kelvin Sampson and Houston Friday night in Kansas City.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (WDRB) — Welcome to the Midwest Regional championship game that should be played in Nashville.

Or maybe Atlanta. Birmingham would work. Ditto for New Orleans.

Any address that you consider Southeastern Conference territory works because on Sunday at the Sprint Center the SEC is guaranteed to send at least one team to the NCAA Final Four.

Confirmation came in a thunderous one-two punch Friday night. First Auburn, a team that finished fourth in the SEC, flattened North Carolina, 97-80.

Then Kentucky, a squad that finished behind LSU in the SEC, outlasted Houston, 62-58.

The Wildcats made it more difficult than it should have been. They moved to a 13-point lead in the second half — and gave it all back and more.

In fact, the Cougars led, 58-55 with 1:16 to play. But PJ Washington, yes, the guy with the sprained left foot, made a 12-footer in traffic.

"We knew they were going to go to Washington in the post," Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. "We missed a defensive assignment and he made a great play."

Tyler Herro took it from there, making a three from the left wing and a pair of free throws as Kentucky returned to the Elite Eight for the second time in three seasons.

"Just a will to win," UK assistant coach Kenny Payne said. "A will to win."

Write those two names down a second time. Herro led Kentucky with 19 points. Washington scored 16.

Nobody in Kansas City had a bigger smile than SEC commissioner Greg Sankey. His league has produced 25 percent of the Elite Eight but the SEC is the only league guaranteed a spot in the Final Four next weekend in Minneapolis.

Stirred by the return of Washington, the Wildcats flexed their physical superiority early to position themselves for a third game against Bruce Pearl’s surging Auburn team, which has won 11 straight.

The Wildcats won, 82-80, at Auburn on Jan. 19 and then increased their dominance to 27 points (80-53) a month later in Rupp Arena.

Kentucky’s chances of delivering the hat trick, and earning the Wildcats’ fifth Final Four trip in John Calipari’s 10 seasons, were upgraded by a pair of injury developments.

After missing the Wildcats’ first two NCAA games in Jacksonville last weekend,  Washington returned as UK’s first substitute and energized Calipari’s rotation. He gave Kentucky nearly 26 minutes, about 10 more than the coaching staff expected.

Sadly, as Kentucky regained its best player, Auburn likely lost its best guy. Chuma Okeke carried the Tigers with 20 points and 11 rebounds, but with 8:08 remaining in the second half he collapsed while driving the left side of the lane with a frightening scream.

Left knee injury.

Okeke did not return — and it appeared unlikely he will play Sunday.

“We don’t know the status but we think it could be serious,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said.

Some people believed that Houston was a tricky team to gauge. Nobody had more victories than the 33 victories that Sampson’s team rang up.

But the Cougars performed in the American Athletic Conference, a league ranked the sixth best in the nation in Ken Pomeroy’s. Only two other teams from the AAC made the 68-team NCAA field — and both disappeared last weekend.

The Cougars earned their reputation as a team that defended and rebounded. Kentucky was making better than 50 percent of its shots deep into the second half and the Wildcats out-rebounded the Cougars by 13.

Now they get Auburn for chance to play on the final weekend of the college basketball season.

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