Katie Meier looked over from the visiting bench and spied Makayla Epps looking a little bit hobbled late in the game on Friday night.
“I thought she was cramping up a little bit,” said the Miami (Fla.) coach of Kentucky’s senior star. “We cut it to three and I was like, ‘Oh, look at that poor girl.’”
That poor girl, battling a bit of tendinitis in the knees that she dubbed “old,” scored 18 of her 29 points in the final quarter and helped No. 19 Kentucky upset the No. 14 Hurricanes 82-66 on Friday night at Memorial Coliseum.
“She blistered us, just blistered us,” Meier said of Epps. “She’s tough as nails.”
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Epps, who also had five assists, three steals and three rebounds in the season opener, took over a tight game in the fourth quarter, hitting floaters, driving the lane, assisting on other baskets.
“She sensed the moment,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “She sensed what we needed.”
But both UK’s coach and its star guard were quick to credit the other players with the upset on Friday.
There was Evelyn Akhator, who had 18 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots. There was Maci Morris, who added 11 points. And Makenzie Cann, who pitched in seven points and seven rebounds off the bench.
And a collection of other players, who helped Kentucky get its season after the season-of-discontent off to a fast start.
“I might cry here in a second,” Epps said. “People counted us down and out and are sleeping on us after all the turmoil that happened last season.
“We brought in a lot of hard-working kids. … They make plays. These kids get their names and numbers called off the bench and they make plays.”
There was former walk-on Jessica Hardin, who hit a huge step-back three-pointer at the halftime buzzer to give UK a 38-29 advantage. The guard finished with five points in 19 minutes off the bench.
“She’s coming from walking the campus, playing intramurals to playing in a top 25 game and we wouldn’t have won without Jess Hardin tonight,” Mitchell said. “It was huge for her, I’m sure. Huge for our team.”
It also was huge for Kentucky — which saw six players transfer in the last year — to see that it could put a game away.
Miami cut the Cats’ once double-digit lead to three points twice in the final four minutes before Kentucky scored 13 unanswered to put the game out of reach.
“The more mentally tough team won without question,” Meier said. “They were just more mentally tough. We were trying to exhaust them, trying to get them down on themselves, on the ropes a little bit.”
Instead, Kentucky surged ahead behind Epps late to win its eighth straight season opener and halt Miami’s string of 19 consecutive season-opening victories.
“At the end of the game, they just closed the door,” Meier said. “They didn’t just close it, they slammed it on us.”
There’s still plenty to learn from the victory and UK (1-0) has little time to dissect it, facing Albany as part of the Kentucky Classic on Saturday at 7 p.m.
But Mitchell learned that his players are quick learners. Just a few days ago, the Cats started putting in the 2-3 zone they leaned on heavily in the victory.
Against a veteran NCAA Tournament team that returned four of five starters, that zone helped force 18 turnovers while UK committed only 11 of them. Taylor Murray, Epps and Cann each had three steals.
Kentucky shot 71.4 percent from the field in the final quarter and 48.4 percent for the game. The Cats outrebounded the Hurricanes 39-33.
Miami (0-1), paced by Adrienne Motley’s 16 points and five rebounds, shot 41.3 percent from the field. Nigia Greene added 11 points. Three other Hurricanes added 10 points apiece, including Jessica Thomas, sister of UK wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas.
“I wouldn’t say it was a great defensive performance by any stretch,” Mitchell said. “Anybody who looks at that film will probably say, ‘Wow, Kentucky’s easy to score on.’ But we’ll get better at it.”
Albany at No. 19 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Kentucky 1-0, Albany 0-0
Series: First meeting