LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky was playing without starting point guard Quade Green and with only seven scholarship players Tuesday night against a tall, talented and desperate Texas A&M team. The Wildcats had battled from the start but seemed to be running out of gas, down 6 points with a little more than 8 minutes to go.
Then, PJ Washington muscled his way in for a layup to steady them and, 2 minutes later, swiped a steal, started the fast break and dished to Kevin Knox for a layup to draw within 2 points.
“He’s a go-to guy who can put it in the bucket when we need to stop the bleeding,” guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Once he’s going offensively, we all feed off him.”
After his teammates sank 6 straight free throws to tie the score, Washington snagged another steal and again found Knox for a layup and the lead with 2 minutes, 28 seconds remaining. Then, the 6-foot-7 freshman forward drove from the top of the key and finished over 6-10 projected NBA lottery pick Robert Williams for a 5-point lead with 58 seconds left.
Finally, Washington sank what turned out to be the winning free throw with 37 ticks to go as Kentucky held on for dear life and a 74-73 victory. When it was over, coach John Calipari had made an important decision.
“He has to take the leadership of this team. He has to do it now,” the Cats coach said. “He’s the toughest guy. [I said], ‘If a guy is not doing what he has to, you have the ability and the right now to tell him.’ ”
Washington finished with 16 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals in 32 rough-and-tumble minutes. That makes three straight strong performances by the former McDonald’s All-American who wobbled at the start of his college career.
Against LSU, Tennessee and Texas A&M — two of those on the road — Washington averaged 20.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.2 steals, 1.8 blocks and only 1.3 turnovers per 40 minutes.
“He’s getting more comfortable in his role and understanding what Coach wants him to do, and he’s taking full advantage of it,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, who, as the only available point guard, gave UK 16 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists in 39 minutes Tuesday. “That’s why we’re seeing the PJ that we are the past couple games. He puts pressure on the defense.”
Washington has shot 63.3 percent from the field during this hot streak, mostly because he’s stopped drifting away from the basket while trying to live up to his “positionless” billing and started doing what he does best: imposing his will in the paint.
“I’ll do anything for the team to win. If that’s me dominating inside, I’m going to do that,” Washington said. “I just stepped up because I hate losing. That’s the one thing I hate the most.”
A major part of his emergence came in Baton Rouge, when the 21st-ranked Wildcats (13-3, 3-1 SEC) were about to shoot themselves out of the game and Washington not so gently asked his teammates to stop settling for jumpers and start attacking the basket. Calipari loved it and seems to have latched on to the idea of Washington as the emotional leader of a team starting five freshmen.
“When you watch PJ today, can you see how bad we were missing him at Tennessee in the second half?” asked Calipari, referring to when Washington cramped up and watched the final 12 minutes of a collapse in Knoxville over the weekend. “No chance.”
Freshman 7-footer Nick Richards and 6-10 sophomore Sacha Killeya-Jones have had their moments for Kentucky, but neither can be counted on to carry the front court every night. Richards provided 2 points Tuesday and Killeya-Jones’ 4 points and 5 rebounds were a valuable-but-typical contribution from him.
So, it’s up to the undersized Washington, who makes up for a lack of height with raw power, a 43-inch vertical leap and 7-foot-3 wingspan.
“We have an inside presence now,” guard Hamidou Diallo said. “We have somebody that we can give it to in the post, or within 15 feet, and know we’re going to get a basket or get a foul.”
Washington got to the line 10 times against Texas A&M’s loaded collection of big men and helped get Williams, Tyler Davis and Tonny Trocha-Morelos in foul trouble. However, he missed 5 of those free throws, including 3 straight in the last 37 seconds to give the Aggies one last gasp.
But even that did not shake Calipari’s newfound trust in Washington.
“Now I will put the ball in his hands late to make him get fouled so that you’re going to have to make them,” the coach said. “If it costs us a game somewhere along the way, it helps him to understand, ‘I’m not missing these late.’ ”