Besides MVPS, titles, Anthony, Makayla Epps connected by love for the game

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 21, 2013 

BOWLING GREEN — Thump, thump ... thump, thump ... thump, thump.

Imagine the sound of a basketball hitting a hardwood floor.

Imagine that ball as it bounces in the same rhythm as a heartbeat.

Thump, thump ... thump, thump ... thump, thump.

It's that way for father and daughter.

"That's the bond that brings it all together right there," the daughter says in her quiet, Southern accent. "Basketball is the glue.

"We both have the same love for it. It's us. It's what we do. It's in our blood," she continues.

Sometimes it's like the father and the daughter speak their own language. He sits on the bench and prepares to yell out instruction, but before the words escape his hand-cupped mouth, he sees her make the adjustment on her own.

"I'm about to say, 'Throw a skip pass or do this.' And she just does it," the father says, shaking his head. "It's almost like we're on the same wave length."

It's more than "almost."

They are.

Exactly 20 years after he won a state championship and was crowned tournament Most Valuable Player at Marion County, Anthony Epps sat on the Marion County bench as an assistant coach this season and watched his daughter, Makayla, do the exact same things last weekend.

This summer, the déjà vu will continue when Epps sees his daughter leave for school at the University of Kentucky, where he was the starting point guard for the Cats' 1996 national championship team.

Sometime in early November, he will be in the stands in Memorial Coliseum and see his blue and white No. 25 "Epps" jersey flash across the floor. But Makayla will be the one wearing it now.

"To see her go there is a joy," says the elder Epps, who got down on his hands and knees to kiss the interlocking "UK" at halfcourt during a recent championship ring ceremony for the '96 Cats in Rupp Arena. "It's been tremendous for me as a father."

Toughness instilled early

It's been a joy for Epps to see his daughter's on-court success, but it wasn't necessarily his intention for her to follow in his footsteps.

In his mind, he returns to his own Senior Day at Kentucky, when a then-21-month-old Makayla was with him at midcourt wearing her UK cheerleading outfit. "That might have been one of the last times I got her to be a girly girl," half-jokes Makayla's mom, Angela Mattingly.

Now Makayla will be wearing her own Kentucky gear for Matthew Mitchell's team starting next season.

Epps says his daughter wasn't pushed into basketball. She showed lots of athletic promise at an early age in things like soccer and softball. Basketball was just one of many things she liked to do.

"I didn't want to be one of those parents that push their kid to do something they might not like," says Epps, who spent parts of Makayla's childhood living in Louisville. "I sat back and let her do her thing. ... I kind of stayed back when she was growing up and watched her grow."

Makayla learned lots of what she knows about basketball not from Anthony, but on a makeshift court at the apartment complex in her neighborhood growing up.

"She was probably eight or nine, and it was all boys in the neighborhood," Mattingly recalls. "There weren't any girls her age. So she always played with boys who were two or three years older than her and they had a basketball goal on the side of the apartment building and grass and dirt and that's where they played."

Those boys didn't take it easy on the only girl, either.

"One time I went up for a layup and got shoved into the goal post," Makayla says. "It rung me a little bit and I'd go home crying, but then I'd go right back out there in two hours. I'd fall, cry some more and then try it again."

It made her tough, one of the traits her father had been known for, and it made her strong. It was the start of an amazing high school career in which she scored 3,321 points, sixth most in state history, and was named a McDonald's All-American and the state's Gatorade Player of the Year.

This season alone, when the undefeated Lady Knights rose to the No. 5 team in the nation, the 5-foot-11 guard averaged 22.8 points and 4.3 rebounds.

"They didn't hold no punches," Anthony Epps says of the neighborhood boys. "They treated her as one of their own. When they was out there on the court, they was out to win. That's where she got that competitive fire from."

Playing on those courts more than prepared her for her high school career.

"She's so fast and strong, people just bounce off her and you hear people in the crowd yelling, 'Charge,'" says Trent Milby, her high school coach. "Well, that's not a charge, that's just people bouncing off of her. Girls hit her and it's like running into a wall."

Milby and Epps both know.

They've tried to guard Makayla and her teammates, including fellow Kentucky signee Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, at practice.

"I can honestly say I'm like the rest of the state," Anthony Epps says. "My team has never beaten them either. That was one of my goals before the season was over to finally beat them and say I was one of the few to beat the Marion County Lady Knights this year, but I never did."

The Marion County head coach said the closest the coaches got to beating them was five or six points, but eventually the "old men" tired of trying to keep up with the girls.

"They just find ways to beat us," Milby says. "They're hard to guard at every spot."

The younger Epps, who averaged 22.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.3 steals in her four Sweet Sixteen games this season, said it was challenging to guard her old man.

"Very challenging," she says. "He's strong. He can lift above me and shoot it. He'll talk trash to us and tries to fuel us."

Sometimes during games, Epps pulls aside his daughter and reminds her: "If you can do it against me in practice, then you can do it against these girls, who aren't as smart as me on the basketball court."

Carving her own path

It's tough for Makayla to guard Anthony, and he said he more than understands why it's difficult for opponents to guard her.

Speaking more as a coach than a father, he can discuss her strengths and weaknesses at length.

"She's special," he says. "Coming out of high school, I was a good player in my own right, in my own time, but I was never a McDonald's All-American and that glamour stuff that she is. She's special."

He says Epps' ability to get a rebound and push the ball from "one end of the court to the other end to the basket (is) like nothing I've seen in the state of Kentucky in girls' basketball."

Milby takes the comparisons between father, who walked on for Rick Pitino at UK, and daughter one step further.

"She's better than Anthony," Milby says matter-of-factly. "Comparing men's to women's, she's better than Anthony was at this age. She's a McDonald's All-American. Anthony wasn't all that known. She has a chance to go and star, whereas Anthony had to work for it."

The comparisons to her father don't seem to bother Makayla. She takes it as a compliment. Her mom, as moms often do, said she sometimes worries about Makayla going to UK and feeling pressure to have the same success as Anthony.

"He's had his time and he did great things up there, but this is her time now," Mattingly said. "I worry about it a little bit about there being added pressure on her, but she's pretty good at handling pressure."

Epps will enjoy watching his daughter find her own success at the school he loves.

"I'm not living my life through her," he says. "I'm not one of those parents who do that. ... This is her time."

But he has enjoyed the attention that comes from being "Makayla Epps' dad," something he's heard a lot in the past year or two.

"I'm proud because it lets me know she's really grown into her own person," he says. "It makes me really proud just to see her grow. It's been a tremendous ride, but to see her reach all of her individual goals, just seeing the hard work she's put in throughout the years is priceless for me."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241 Twitter: @jenheraldleader Blog:

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