UK freshman Epps, a former Louisville recruit, is 'amped' for showdown

jsmith3@herald-leader.comNovember 30, 2013 

Kentucky Wildcats guard Makayla Epps (25) pressures Central Michigan Chippewas guard Da'Jourie Turner (1) during the second half at Memorial Coliseum Nov. 17, 2013 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Amy Wallot

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The rivalry game against Kentucky and Louisville last season nearly cost Makayla Epps a television set.

The 48-47 slugfest between top-10 teams had the Kentucky commitment on the edge of her seat as then-UK freshman guard Janee Thompson swooshed the game-winning three-pointer in the final eight seconds.

"I was sitting at home watching it — it was down to the wire and Janee hits that three and I literally almost threw my remote through the TV," Epps said. "I was ecstatic. It was just crazy."

The rivalry means a little more to Epps, and not just because she's the daughter of a former UK point guard who played in his share of high-stakes rivalry games against Louisville.

Epps also has the distinction of being hotly recruited by both Louisville and Kentucky. Initially, she committed to Louisville before backing out and signing with UK.

The guard, who cited some "personal things that happened that I don't look at no more," as her reason for the change of destination, said she's landed at the right place.

"I'm just glad I ended up here," the UK reserve said. "I feel like this is perfect for me.

"Me and Coach Mitchell had that personal connection and when I was getting recruited, I was looking for a coach that I could have a connection with like my high school coach."

Epps, a Kentucky Miss Basketball, who won 39 straight games and a Sweet Sixteen championship at Marion County last season, knows this game has a much bigger feel to it than any high school game.

"Just growing up being from Kentucky, you're either with Kentucky or you're with Louisville," said Epps, who averages 4.5 points and 2.7 assists this season. "You're with one or the other, you're with Kentucky or Louisville with no in between."

Epps said it will be a big game for her on Sunday at Memorial Coliseum when her seventh-rated Cats take on No. 4 Louisville in a battle of the high-scoring unbeatens.

"I'm real amped for it, but I know all of my teammates — even with all my recruiting history — the rest of my team is just as amped for it because it's Louisville," she said.

UK Coach Matthew Mitchell was asked whether he would try to settle down his freshman reserve a little bit going into the big game.

Did he plan to talk to her about settling in for a long 40 minutes?

"Here's the thing about Makayla: she generally gets excited and I'm sure being a Kentucky native and knowing how important the game is, there is maybe a tendency to get too amped as a freshman. But I think she's got enough on her hands trying to learn and play defense the way we need her to," Mitchell said.

Battle of Ohio, too?

So much is made of this being a battle for Bluegrass supremacy, but two players from Ohio, UK's Samarie Walker and Louisville's Asia Taylor, could be key figures in the battle overall.

Walker, a 6-foot-1 senior forward, is coming off the best game of her career this week when she scored a career-best 22 points and grabbed 14 rebounds.

The Connecticut transfer is third on UK's team in scoring with 11.4 points and leads the Cats in rebounds with 10.3 a game.

Walker has known Taylor, a 6-1 senior forward who is fourth on the team in scoring (10.3) and rebounds (6.7), since the two were in middle school.

They have played on the same teams and against one another for years. They could be a matchup to watch on Sunday.

"She's a great player, very energetic and very, very athletic. I think we both know that about each other and I'm going to have to box her out a little because she can probably out jump me. She's a lot talker and longer than me. It's going to be a great game for both of us."

'March and April is what matters'

Cardinals Coach Jeff Walz drew a few scoffs in his post-loss comments last season when he declared that "come March, nobody cares about this ball game. If we do our job and continue to improve and make a run in the NCAA Tournament, it doesn't matter."

He was right, as Louisville went on to upend top-ranked Baylor and eventually advance to the championship game before losing to Connecticut.

On Saturday, Walz was asked about his previous comments.

He stood by them.

"Were we upset we gave a game away last year at home? Of course we were," he said on Saturday. "But on April the 7th when we were playing in the Final Four, I don't think anyone remembered that too much. ... March and April is what matters."

He did add that he wouldn't mind winning this game on Sunday in Lexington, too. It will be a good win for either team, but it won't make or break the season, he said.

"It's great for the fans," Walz continued. "For me, it's the next game on the schedule. I've said that for the last seven years and I'll say that for the next 20 if I'm here that long. Again, it's a game we all want to win, there's no question about it."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com.

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