Even before they became lifelong friends, Pat Summitt lumped them together.
The Tennessee coach had heard in the breeze that one of her players might have been spotted at the football dorm, a no-no for the Lady Vols.
So instead of summoning Kyra Elzy for an old-fashioned talking-to, the coach grabbed teammate Niya Butts instead.
“Coach Summitt comes to me and was like, ‘If she does anything else and gets in trouble, you’re going home,’” Butts recalled with a laugh some 20 years later. “I looked at her like: ‘What!?’”
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For good measure, the Tennessee coach told Elzy the same thing about Butts.
“Those are things that show they really did see us as one person, like we were connected,” said Butts, who roomed with Elzy at UT. “That says a lot. Needless to say, neither of us had to go home.”
Instead, they were a part of two Lady Vols national championships and multiple Southeastern Conference titles.
Now, the decades-long friends are together on Kentucky’s coaching staff for the first time, trying to help Coach Matthew Mitchell keep UK in the upper echelon despite a turbulent offseason.
Butts and Elzy, who return with the No. 17 Cats to face Tennessee on Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena, stood side by side at Summitt’s bedside before she passed away in June.
What would the coaching legend think of them coaching together?
“We were standing next to the bedside together, so it was fitting,” Elzy said. “She just instilled a lot in us as far as the commitment, the love of the game, work ethic, what it takes to win, and I think she’d be very proud we’re an extension of the Tennessee branch.”
Butts chuckled: “She probably would’ve said, ‘It figures y’all are together.’”
It seems an unlikely pair at first glance. But they say that’s why the friendship works.
Just look at them on the UK bench: Butts in a fitted pantsuit with crisp white shirt and a pocket square, with Chuck Taylor sneakers to pull it all together. Next to her is Elzy in a little black dress and sparkling stilettos.
“That sums up our friendship pretty much,” said Elzy, who first met Butts at a Tennessee basketball summer camp in 1995. “Opposites attract.”
Elzy could spend hours perusing shoe aisles and looking for coordinator jewelry. Butts would be much happier at Best Buy checking out the latest gadgets.
“This is when I absolutely knew she loved me,” Elzy said recently. “I cried for her to wear sandals at (my) wedding so we could take pictures. … She didn’t have on tennis shoes or flip-flops in the picture. And she wore the dress. She wore the dress and the shoes.”
The UK assistant coaches have different coaching styles, too.
But their job is to connect with the players, and they’ve done that while in their second stints as a Kentucky assistant coaches.
“Who would’ve known that God would’ve brought us right back here?” said Elzy, who returned to the UK sidelines after a few seasons at her alma mater. She was fired by Holly Warlick at the end of last season.
“It’s crazy,” said Butts, who fielded many 3 a.m. phone calls from Elzy to convince her to come back to UK after she had been let go by Arizona after several years there as head coach.
Both said it’s fun being back at a place they love with just an office wall between them at the Joe Craft Center. When one needs the other, she’s just a loud bang or a yell away.
Their tight-knit relationship also extends to Mitchell, who they met when he was on the support staff at Tennessee when they were players there.
“They went to bat for me as a graduate assistant,” he said. “They told Pat (Summitt) that they gave me a vote of confidence, and I think they had a role in her feeling comfortable to hire me as a graduate assistant.”
Having them on staff again, having them close by when things weren’t going well this offseason, has meant a lot to Mitchell.
“We have a long-term, deep relationship, and then they’re so close that the three of us are connected and there’s that dynamic in the relationship,” he said.
“They’re very loyal people when I needed that. I was in a time of great need of loyalty and the quality of their expertise in coaching and getting this job done is something that I needed. So, it’s been great and it is fun. We have a lot of laughs together.”
Elzy said Mitchell is like “our brother.”
It’s created a fun, familial environment at UK this season, including Hall of Fame coach Lin Dunn, who came out of retirement to join Mitchell’s staff.
“They’ve been great and I probably give them a harder time than they give me,” Mitchell said of Elzy and Butts. “It’s a lot of fun having them here.”
No. 17 Kentucky at Tennessee
When: 4 p.m.
Records: UK 9-4; Tennessee 8-4
Series: Tennessee leads 53-11
Last meeting: UK won 64-63 on Jan. 25, 2016, in Lexington
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Probable starters: Maci Morris, 6-0, G, So. (12.1 pts, 3.1 rebs); Evelyn Akhator, 6-3, F, Sr. (13.2 pts, 10.8 rebs); Taylor Murray, 5-6, G, So. (13.2 pts, 5.0 rebs, 2.3 asts); Makayla Epps, 5-10, G, Sr. (17.5 pts, 4.5 rebs, 4.1 asts); Alyssa Rice, 6-3, C, Jr. (3.8 pts, 5.5 rebs)
Key reserves: Makenzie Cann, 6-1, G, Jr. (8.4 pts, 4.2 rebs); Jessica Hardin, 5-8, G, Sr. (3.5 pts); Paige Poffenberger, 5-8, G, Fr. (1.0 pts); Jaida Roper, 5-6, PG, Fr. (1.6 pts, 1.3 asts)
Probable starters: Jaime Nared, 6-2, G/F, Jr. (15.2 pts, 8.2 rebs); Mercedes Russell, 6-6, C, Jr. (16.3 pts, 9.3 rebs); Jordan Reynolds, 5-11, G, Sr. (7.6 pts, 6.5 rebs, 5.0 asts); Meme Jackson, 5-11, G/F, So. (7.4 pts, 2.3 rebs); Diamond DeShields, 6-1, G, Jr. (15.3 pts, 6.4 rebs, 3.2 asts)
Key reserves: Alexa Middleton, 5-9, G, Jr. (10.5 pts, 3.3 rebs); Schaquilla Nunn, 6-3, F, Sr. (5.0 pts, 5.0 rebs); Kamera Harris, 6-3, C, Fr. (1.3 pts, 1.2 rebs); Kortney Dunbar, 6-2, G, Jr. (4.0 pts, 3.5 rebs)