For Evelyn Akhator and other Chipola College women’s basketball players during the 2014-15 school year, that meant a frequent outing was heading to the home of their coach to eat and watch TV.
For University of Kentucky women’s basketball, that turned out to be a very good thing.
The Chipola coach, Greg Franklin, has deep roots in (state of) Kentucky basketball. In the late 1980s, he was a first-team All-State basketball guard who led Central City to the 1989 Kentucky boys’ Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena.
During that 2014-15 hoops season, as John Calipari’s UK men’s team came achingly close to completing an undefeated season, you can guess what tended to be on Franklin’s TV.
“I do have Kentucky basketball on a lot,” Franklin says. “I watch a lot of UK, the men and the women.”
Says Akhator: “(Franklin) really loves Kentucky. Each time I would go to his house to eat, he really brags about UK basketball. He loves Kentucky. He really loves Kentucky.”
Given that, it should not have been a shock when Akhator — the National Junior College Player of the Year after leading Chipola to the 2015 juco national title — turned down Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida State and picked the Cats.
This winter, Matthew Mitchell and UK Hoops figure to be especially grateful for all those Wildcats games Akhator watched on Franklin’s TV. The 6-foot-3 Akhator, coupled with fellow senior star Makayla Epps, are the main reasons Kentucky has a viable chance to make an eighth-straight NCAA Tournament in spite of an offseason filled by player departures and recruiting decommitments.
As a UK junior last season, Akhator, a native of Lagos, Nigeria, averaged 11.5 points and 9.3 rebounds. Mitchell thinks she will take a big step forward, as junior-college transfers often do, in her second season of Division I competition.
“Evelyn really benefited from last year,” Mitchell says. “You will see a more complete player.”
Franklin says he did not deliberately steer Akhator to UK. “We’re not very far from Tallahassee, so we would go over to Florida State a lot,” Franklin says. “FSU recruited her hard, and I thought she was comfortable with them. But she said she just felt more comfortable with UK.”
In his own playing days, Franklin, a 6-3 guard, averaged 23 points as a junior at Central City. As a senior in ’89, he averaged 20 a contest and helped Central City — the tiny Muhlenberg County school with a rich Sweet Sixteen heritage — to its 17th and final trip to the boys’ state tournament.
He scored 19 points in Rupp Arena, but Central City fell to Bryan Station, 71-68, in the first round. The next year, Central City closed.
Franklin earned a scholarship to Austin Peay. He scored 1,312 career points at Austin Peay, then envisioned a career coaching high school basketball in Kentucky. Instead, he has spent much of his adult life coaching women’s college hoops, both as an assistant at Mississippi State and as head coach at Southeastern Illinois and Chipola junior colleges.
A contact in Nigeria tipped Greg Franklin to Akhator. “I have a rule on international players, I won’t even consider them unless I see some pretty extensive video (of them playing),” Franklin says.
On Akhator’s video, he saw someone with size and freakish athleticism who ran up and down the court like her life depended on each possession. “She was raw, very raw,” Franklin says. “But I thought somebody that athletic who played that hard could be developed.”
Since Akhator has been at Kentucky, Mitchell has oft commented on how good a person she is. Franklin saw that the first time she played for Chipola in a jamboree.
In her first U.S. game, Akhator kept going to the foul line and missing, over and over. After one of the errant fouls shots, Franklin was stunned to see his team defending with only four players.
Looking to the opposite end of the court, he saw Akhator in the middle of the gym floor, on her knees, praying.
“I don’t like missing shots. I was like ‘Oh, God, help me,’” Akhator says, laughing.
Last school year, as seven players with remaining eligibility departed the UK program for various reasons, Franklin once texted Akhator to see how she was doing.
Says Franklin: “She texted back ‘I’m fine. Some people just don’t want to work hard.’”
As one of the “loyal six” scholarship players who stuck with Mitchell and UK, you might say Akhator has shown she now shares a trait with the man who introduced her to Kentucky basketball.
“I love Kentucky,” Evelyn Akhator says.
Union (Tenn.) at Kentucky
7 p.m. at Memorial Coliseum (SEC Network)
College basketball preview
The Herald-Leader’s 2016-17 college basketball special section is coming next Sunday.