KANSAS CITY, Mo. – For his whole basketball career they've called him "Boy Wonder."

To scores of Kentucky's fans Tyler Herro will always be a … hero. Same pronunciation and spell check be damned, Kentucky's gym-rat freshman made sure the Wildcats achieved their birthright Friday night in the Midwest Regional.

That is, being around this late in March to chase another championship. Herro made sure when he hit a game-winning three with 26 seconds to beat third-seeded Houston 62-58.

At times it was a weird, disjointed low-scoring game that Kentucky came darn close to losing. It leaned on Herro – the SEC newcomer of the year – and PJ Washington to advance to its 34th Elite Eight, an NCAA record.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Houston vs Kentucky
Tyler Herro celebrates his late bucket vs. Houston on Friday. USATSI

The "Boy Wonder" is a 19-year freshman from Milwaukee who fits the Kentucky mold. Doesn't there always have to be at least one Wildcat who is the fan favorite because of floor burns and work ethic?

"That's just Tyler," teammate Ashton Hagans said. "He's the type of player that loves to compete. You ask anyone around here. He's one of the main ones in the gym -- 6 a.m., right after practice, 10 o'clock at night, 11 o'clock at night."

It was in the last hour before midnight Central Daylight Time when Herro took a pass from fellow freshman Keldon Johnson before shooting from the left wing to give the Wildcats a 60-58 lead.

"Once I saw the ball coming back to me I knew I was shooting," Herro said. "I think every shot is going in."

Both of Friday's winners are literally limping into Sunday's regional final. Auburn lost its best inside threat Chuma Okeke to a knee injury in the 17-point victory over North Carolina. Kentucky's PJ Washington limped into the lockerroom but only after contributing 16 points in 26 minutes off the bench.

Right up until the warm-up there was uncertainty whether Kentucky's best player would play. Washington had been nursing a left-foot sprain for 13 days. Without him Friday the Wildcats wouldn't have lasted another day.

Houston had gone on a 16-8 run to take a three-point lead with less than a minute to play. It was Washington's basket that pulled the Wildcats within one when he missed the free throw after being fouled.

Thirty seconds later Herro wrote his name into the inches-thick history book of Wildcat basketball with that cold-blooded 3-pointer.

"It's just the way we practice," Washington said. "[Coach John Calipari] does a good job of challenging us in practice. He tries to put you in uncomfortable situations so once you get in a game it's nothing you haven't seen before."

"I love our will to win," Calipari said.

He'll have to embrace even more come Sunday. Auburn hasn't lost since being drilled by Kentucky 80-53 on February 23. Since then, the Tigers have won 11 in a row despite being outrebounded in eight of those games.

Missing Okeke is going to hamper a squad that struggles on the boards (334th in defensive rebounding).

"It's serious, we think," coach Bruce Pearl said of Okeke's injury.

One thing is certain. The SEC is suddenly guaranteed a Final Four berth. Kentucky hasn't been there since 2015. Auburn? Never.

In a subdued Auburn lockerroom, they were already sizing up the task ahead. They were swept in the season series by Kentucky. However, the Tigers became the first team in NCAA Tournament history to beat Kansas and North Carolina in back-to-back games.

Certain to say no team has beaten three in a row with Kentucky at the back end. It should be noted this isn't a vintage Kentucky team. John Wall isn't walking through a door anytime soon.

If Auburn guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper heat up (combined 6 of 15 against North Carolina), well, let's say the Wildcats are vulnerable.

"We know how good they are," Calipari said of the Tigers. "We've had battles."

Not many through the years. Kentucky has won 93 of the 113 meetings. Does that mean a darn thing to a Boy Wonder with a Final Four berth at stake?

"Yeah, that's what they call me," Herro said.

Or should we say, hero?

"I think it fits him perfectly," Washington said.