For 30 minutes, Kentucky did little to convince fans they’re better than the team that dropped three of its last five; then, PJ Washington took over.
Washington slammed down a beautiful lob from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, waking up the Rupp Arena crowd and his teammates, who had allowed Mississippi State to tie the game with mental errors and lackadaisical play. Don’t get me wrong; Kentucky’s issues didn’t go away after PJ’s dunk — in fact, he made a dumb turnover himself a minute later — but there’s no denying that his play inspired the best effort we saw from the team all night. Without it, Kentucky would have lost and dropped three in a row for the first time since Billy Gillispie was coach, a horrible scenario I’m really grateful not to be writing about tonight.
PJ finished with a career-high 22 points along with six rebounds, three steals, two blocks and two assists. After his dunk, he assumed the leadership role that John Calipari wanted him to take a month ago, bullying his way to the basket and matching Mississippi State’s effort on each trip down the floor. After a big block with about a minute left, he did that little flex that he loves to do, and you know what? I wasn’t even mad; I flexed too.
When PJ’s playing like that, Kentucky’s issues in the post don’t seem so dire. Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland said that in the second half, his team had no answer for PJ’s physical play.
“He’s strong. He’s physical around the rim. He’s patient. He used a lot of shot fakes to get us up in the air. He’s just a very, very good player who has great hands and a great feel for the game using his body to create space to get shots off around the basket.”
After the game, Calipari said the difference in PJ’s game tonight was he hit his free throws and fought through contact — the smart way.
“He got to the basket. Made some layups, got by people. We’ve been working on him, trying to get him to get his shoulder — instead of ‘I’m just going to push you out of the way,’ he’s quick and fast enough and long enough, make a move and get your shoulder by the guy so now any contact is a foul on him. If you don’t, you know that if they can call a charge, they will.”
It worked. PJ got to the free throw line 14 times tonight, and even better, he made 10 of those shots, a welcome improvement over his 59% mark coming in. When I watched PJ play tonight, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Julius Randle, a comparison that feels especially appropriate given Calipari’s comments yesterday about the differences between the 2014 team and this team.
“Julius, physically, gave you something that maybe this team doesn’t have. He could just bulldoze you. But PJ, at times, does the same, gives you some of that.”
For PJ to be the Julius Randle that this team needs, he’s going to have to carry tonight’s performance over. Earlier this month, Calipari anointed PJ this team’s leader only for the freshman not to hold up his part of the bargain in practice.
“I’m trying to tell PJ I want him to lead, but I’m also having to teach him how he’s got to be on that basketball court all the time to really be the leader he needs to be,” Calipari said back on January 12. “In other words, when you come with that spirit, that competitive spirit, you’re in that frame of mind, I need you to lead. When you’re in there to jerk around, or joke, or grab, that brings practice down. Then I don’t need you to lead.”
Tonight, PJ led and saved Kentucky from itself. For the Cats to have a chance vs. West Virginia, the most physical team they’ve faced thus far, he’s going to have to do it again and even better. No stepping back.
“We need that,” Calipari said. “PJ’s gotta give us that.”