Kentucky holds off Houston to move on to Elite Eight

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Kentucky used a late three-pointer from freshman Tyler Herro to get past No. 3 seed Houston with a 62-58 victory on Friday night to advance to the Elite Eight in the Midwest Region. The freshman’s go-ahead three-pointer with 25.8 seconds left gave Kentucky a two-point lead as Herro also made two free throws for the game’s deciding advantage. Kentucky closed the game on a 7-0 run to advance to the Elite Eight for the seventh time in head coach John Calipari’s 10 seasons as the team’s coach.

Kentucky (30-6) struggled with perimeter shooting (4-for-12) as they didn’t make a three-pointer in the second half until Herro’s late shot. Herro (19 points) was Kentucky’s main threat on the evening as he went 7-for-13 from the floor.

But the Wildcats don’t advance on Friday without a gutsy effort from All-American forward P.J. Washington.

After missing the tournament’s first weekend with his foot in a hard cast, Washington made his return to the Kentucky lineup in the Sweet 16 as he came off the bench to finish with 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting. Washington wasn’t fully healthy, but his presence was huge for the Wildcats. The sophomore forward was a go-to player on offense while registering a key block that ignited the fast-break look for Herro’s go-ahead three. For Washington to play this well on a bum foot is a signature moment to an already memorable sophomore season.

With freshman Keldon Johnson (seven points, 3-for-12 shooting) having an off-day, Herro’s ability to create his own shot, and Washington’s stability on the inside, was all that Kentucky needed on offense as they grinded out this win against Houston’s strong defense.

This win wasn’t pretty for Kentucky, but they have to be pleased to advance on a night where only two players were clicking on offense. The Wildcats put forth a solid defensive outing against the Cougars, but they’re going to need more than Herro and Washington if they want to advance to another Final Four.

No. 2 seed Kentucky moves on to face No. 5 seed Auburn in Sunday’s Elite Eight in Kansas City. The Tigers are riding an 11-game winning streak as they’re one of the hottest teams in the field. But the Wildcats knocked off the Tigers, 80-53, during a blowout home SEC win in Lexington in late February.

Since that February loss to Kentucky, Auburn hasn’t lost, as the Tigers’ offense continues to put up flurries of points behind a dangerous collection of three-point shooters. Although it’s looking like Auburn will be without versatile sophomore wing forward Chuma Okeke (knee) on Sunday, Auburn is still a very credible threat with the way they’re playing. Although we saw a blowout between these two teams in the regular season, a similar result in the Elite Eight would come as a surprise given how good the Tigers have looked in recent weeks.

Houston (33-4) had one of its most successful seasons in decades as they advanced to the second weekend for the first time since 1984. This loss is going to sting for the the AAC champions, however, as they came very close to knocking off one of the sport’s bluebloods until the final minute. The Cougars were led by Armoni Brooks as he buried five second-half three-pointers to pace Houston as he finished with 20 points. Guards Corey Davis Jr. (14 points) and Galen Robinson Jr. (10 points) also finished in double-figures for the Cougars.

With a chance to close out Kentucky in the final minutes, Houston went cold as Brooks couldn’t knock down a final dagger. With its big men battling foul trouble, Houston’s guards made a huge late push as the Cougars went on a 20-10 run to take a three-point lead. But Houston couldn’t close on either end of the floor as they let Herro take an open look and Washington get comfortable on the block during key defensive possessions.

Head coach Kelvin Sampson has re-built Houston into a nationally-respected program with back-to-back appearances in the Round of 32. The Cougars also had the opportunity to close out games during back-to-back tournaments where they ended up losing in the final minute.

Last season, Jordan Poole’s buzzer-beating three-pointer lifted Michigan past Houston when the Cougars were clinging to a late lead in the Round of 32. This year, Houston led 58-55 with 1:16 left before seeing its lead melt away during the final possessions in the Sweet 16. These seasons have certainly been memorable for the Cougars but some giant postseason “What Ifs?” loom as the main story.

If Sampson ends up leaving Houston for another job this offseason — either way, Sampson is going to get paid by someone for his recent string of success — then it’ll be fascinating to see how the Cougars maintain. It’s been fun having Houston basketball back in the national college basketball landscape these past few seasons. Sampson has helped develop some fun guards to watch with some teams that came very close to making deep runs in the tournament.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.