Epps, Harper have big plans for Kentucky

broberts@herald-leader.comApril 6, 2013 

Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper come from two very different places.

Epps is a product of little Lebanon, Ky., while Harper was born and raised below the skyscrapers of Chicago.

Last week, the two high school basketball standouts palled around in Harper's hometown as McDonald's All-Americans. Next season, they'll be together again as Kentucky Wildcats.

So what was the common trait that brought together two very talented girls with two very different backgrounds?

They both clicked with UK Coach Matthew Mitchell.

"It's almost like a home away from home," Harper said. "When we're there it's like we're almost one of his children. He takes care of us. ... He really didn't act like it was a visit. He just acted like it was a typical day for him.

"And that's one thing I love about Coach Mitchell — he's always himself. Being around him makes me be a better person."

For Epps, signing on with Mitchell and the Cats might seem like a no-brainer.

The Marion County standout is the daughter of former UK point guard Anthony Epps, who was a key player on the men's 1996 national championship team.

But Epps first committed to Louisville along with friend and teammate Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, who is also regarded as a Top 100 recruit by ESPN.

Both players had a falling out with U of L Coach Jeff Walz, and the pair decommitted from the Cardinals last year. Within a few weeks, they were Wildcats.

The decision to go to Kentucky was all about relationships.

"Me and Coach Walz just didn't click on some aspects that me and Coach Mitchell clicked on," Epps said. "I tried to look for a college coach that's more like my high school coach, because I played for him for seven years. I had to find a coach like him, and I found that in Mitchell more than I did Coach Walz."

Like Marion County Coach Trent Milby, Epps said Mitchell is hard on players when he has to be, but he also has some fun along the way.

Winning is a big deal to Epps and Harper, but they got into the sport because they had fun doing it.

At Kentucky, they think they can have it all.

To illustrate the fun factor of UK basketball, both point guards flashed back to October's Big Blue Madness in Rupp Arena.

The atmosphere was amazing, they said, but the highlight was Mitchell's dance moves, which have become a Madness tradition in recent years.

This season it was an MC Hammer tribute that neither player was expecting.

"I didn't know he could move like that," Epps said with a laugh. "He's older, so I didn't know Coach had that in him."

"He killed the stage," Harper added. "He did his thing and the crowd went nuts."

Both players know when to have fun and when to get serious.

Kentucky has been to a school-record four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, and the Cats have advanced to the Elite Eight in three of those.

The past two seasons have ended with losses to UConn, and both defeats left Mitchell and company needing just one more victory to make the first Final Four in program history.

This season's loss was ugly — an 83-53 rout at the hands of the Huskies.

Epps and Harper didn't get to see much of that game. They were at the University of Chicago participating in the McDonald's skills competition, but they saw the final score at the end of the night and cringed at the reminder.

It was another UK season that ended one victory short of the next step.

Getting to the Final Four is something that Mitchell discussed with both players during their recruitment.

Now Epps and Harper will have four chances to help their coach take Kentucky basketball to the next level.

"He's always talked about getting over that hump of the Elite Eight," Epps said. "UConn's got us two years in a row, so next year we're going to come in and work. And I think what we've got coming in with me, Kyvin and Linnae and what we have coming back, I think we can help Coach Mitchell get over that hump."

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216. Twitter: @NextCats. Blog: ukrecruiting.bloginky.com

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