Kentucky could have frozen up like it was part of the Mannequin Challenge when star Makayla Epps went to the bench in early foul trouble.
Instead, the No. 15 Cats found they had plenty of other options and managed to pull ahead even with the senior on the bench to top Middle Tennessee 61-48 on Friday night.
“That could’ve been very deflating and we could’ve panicked,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said of the nearly 10-minute span that the Cats played without Epps and managed to score 11 unanswered points that put them ahead for good.
“That wasn’t an ideal situation, but there we were able to go into halftime with a lead. I was really, really proud of that.”
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Two players who were a part of that surge, Taylor Murray and Eveyn Akhator, said they prepare for all sorts of scenarios such as Epps being out in practice each day.
It helped the team stay calm and win its fifth straight over the Blue Raiders (2-4).
“It’s one thing we practice each and every day,” said Murray, who followed up her career game against Louisville on Sunday with 16 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three steals on Friday.
“If we have a player struggling, it’s just my job to step up and make sure the team is relaxed and not rushing on offense.”
Akhator, who struggled with her confidence at Louisville and sat for much of the second half and overtime, seemed to find her footing again against Middle Tennessee in Memorial Coliseum.
The senior had been a double-double machine to start the season with five in UK’s first six games, earned her first since Nov. 27 with 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Knowing what to do, practicing playing without Epps in practice helped them get through their issues, Akhator said.
“We usually go through every position just in case something happens and we need it,” she said. “We get more confidence just by doing the ‘what if?’”
Others chipped in, too, such as true freshman Jaida Roper, who had career highs with seven points and three rebounds to go with three assists for Kentucky, which has won four of its last five games.
“Jaida Roper had her best game of the year,” Mitchell said. “She just came in and made some really aggressive plays, gave our team some confidence.”
Despite the early seven-point deficit, the Cats (7-2) were able to go into the half with a 35-31 advantage, which left Mitchell giddy.
“Really pleased with the way the team responded because that was kind of your security blanket getting taken away from you with Makayla being out,” he said. “I thought they responded outstanding.”
And when Epps (13 points, three rebounds and three assists) came back in to play in the second half, Kentucky continued to pull away from the Raiders, who were outrebounded 44-22. UK had more defensive boards (26) than MTSU had rebounds.
“Akhator, she’s tough to keep off the glass,” Raiders Coach Rick Insell said. “You’ve got a ball handler in Murray and shooters around them. They present your team with some problems.”
Middle Tennessee, which was led by Alex Johnson’s 19 points and Ty Petty’s 17 points and six assists, missed 10 shots down low that cost them some confidence, the coach said.
And in the second half, players including Murray were able to chase down loose rebounds and eat up more clock.
After a late fourth-quarter surge, the only thing left in question for Kentucky was whether the Cats would manage to connect on a three-pointer. They went 0-for-9 from long range, ending a streak of 70 straight games with a three-pointer dating back to Nov. 27, 2014.
Kentucky’s 61 points were its fewest of the season, but Mitchell was happy to walk away with the win under less than ideal circumstances.
“We had to figure some things out tonight,” he said. “Really happy to see our team have to win one with defense, have to grind it out. … We had to fight for a victory. We really had to fight for it.”
Watching on film, Insell has been impressed with UK’s fight all season.
“Matthew’s done a good job,” he said. “He’s probably done his best job with this team. They know what they’re doing and they knock down shots and they’re more athletic than some people give them credit for.”
Kentucky is going to need all of that athleticism on Sunday in Rupp Arena against Arizona State, Mitchell said.
UK has around 22,000 tickets distributed for the game and the coach said his hope is that it will be the largest crowd for a women’s game nationally this season.
Arizona State at Kentucky
1 p.m. Sunday in Rupp Arena (SEC Network)