Makayla Epps paused to collect herself when the question came.
What has your time at Kentucky meant to you?
“I don’t even know if I can put it into words,” said the senior, who leaves after four years as the school’s fifth-leading scorer with 1,790 career points.
The guard from Marion County, whose father played at Kentucky before her, thought she had no words, but then had plenty.
Epps, who had 21 points in Kentucky’s 82-68 loss to Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament at Memorial Coliseum on Sunday, first thanked her head coach.
Even though her time at UK was “not just a joy ride” off the court, Epps said Matthew Mitchell meant a lot to her.
“I had some highs and lows, moments where I didn’t know if I was coming or going,” she continued. “He would take time out of his life, busy days, take time away from his family to sit up in his office and talk with me one-on-one, getting to know me; and that is the type of coaches you need, the type that really get to know their players.”
Epps thanked her teammates, especially the ones that stuck it out through the tumultuous offseason last season.
“It’s not the team I started out with but it is the team I finished with,” she said. “Even though we didn’t get the win today, we’re a team. We made Memorial Coliseum rock today and I will never forget the players in the locker room.”
Her time at Kentucky has been about more than just basketball, Epps said.
“Basketball isn’t forever for me, but just to know that I have made a huge impact on so many people’s lives during my four years here means the world to me.”
With just a few seconds left in the game on Sunday, Memorial Coliseum gave a prolonged ovation to Epps and fellow senior Evelyn Akhator.
Epps didn’t make it to the UK bench before doubling over, struggling with the emotions of it all. She slowly pulled her trademark headband off as she left the stage after interviews.
“I’m so grateful for those two because they’ve taught me as much as anything that I’ve taught them,” Mitchell said of his seniors, who scored more than 47 percent of UK’s points this season and grabbed nearly 42 percent of its rebounds.
His gratefulness isn’t because of those buckets and boards, though.
“They gave me, and all of us here who have worked hard to build a good program that has integrity and develops people and isn’t just about winning games.”
Brief, but storied career
In a game against a long, athletic Ohio State team, Akhator managed to have a career day on the boards with 23, also smashing the UK NCAA Tournament record for rebounds by nine.
“That’s a really difficult game to get 23 rebounds in against some really good athletes,” Mitchell said afterward of Akhator, who finished her UK career with 31 double-doubles. That number tied her for third all-time with Victoria Dunlap.
“Tremendous effort,” Mitchell continued of the junior college transfer’s big numbers on Sunday. “It’s indicative of the type of player she is. She’s just been a kid full of effort since day one. You never had to talk to her about effort. What a remarkable young woman.”
Akhator ended her career ranked second in school history with a 10.1 rebounding average. Her 13.7 career scoring average is eighth overall in program history.
Harper’s big day
Former Kentucky player Linnae Harper made the best of her return to Memorial Coliseum, finishing the game with a near triple-double off the Ohio State bench with 12 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.
“There’s no words to even describe it,” Harper said. “Just being back here on the court was a good feeling and getting a win overall was great for our team.”
Her head coach had a few words to describe the performance, Harper’s most complete since she started playing for Ohio State in December as a transfer: “Obviously unbelievable.
“She’s such a great kid and a team-first player that somebody else might have been trying to make this about themselves coming back to the place they transferred from, but not her,” Buckeyes Coach Kevin McGuff said.
Off the bench playing 27 minutes for the Buckeyes, Harper was an instant difference maker. Ohio State’s bench outscored Kentucky’s 22-8, which McGuff said was key.
As was Harper. “She played extremely hard,” McGuff continued. “She made big plays; she moved the ball and just had an overall amazing performance.”
Getting past the past?
After Harper’s huge game, Mitchell was asked about his emotions coaching against the former player who started the exodus last season with her departure.
Kentucky’s coach said the emotions of that were long behind him.
“I moved on from that so long ago, as far as the people who didn’t want to be here,” he said of UK’s five total transfers in one year.
“All of my emotion, effort, and work has gone into this particular team,” Mitchell continued. “This was a remarkable team, and I hope that this now puts all of this — finally, we can move forward. Kentucky is a great place. Some people decided not to be here. We treated all of those folks with a lot of respect and let them go and do whatever they wanted to do.”
The coach said he wishes everybody who left the best, but he’s done thinking about it and dissecting it.
“I don’t spend one second thinking about anybody but these 12 remarkable young women and what it took for us to be the team that we were this year,” he said. “I was really excited about the game today and had no negative emotion going into it. I hope Ohio State has a fantastic weekend here in Lexington next week.”