A few weeks ago, Kentucky had a terrible practice.
They’ve been rare this season for the seventh-ranked, unbeaten Cats.
But that one was a dud.
“The second unit was struggling to find their footing and not playing good defense, and she said nothing,” UK Coach Matthew Mitchell described. “She sat on the sideline and she was just not engaged.”
She is the Cats’ leading scorer this season at 16.6 points to go with 6.3 assists and 5.2 rebounds.
She was silent.
It’s not always that way with Makayla Epps. Off the court, the junior guard has a gift for gab.
Ask her anything and she’s happy to chat away. There’s a disconnect on the court, though.
“Sometimes there are tendencies to get within yourself and not saying anything and then it gets quiet,” Epps admitted.
Even on her undefeated, Sweet Sixteen championship Marion County high school team, the point guard said she wasn’t completely comfortable speaking up when things aren’t going well.
That’s a job for coaches and for leaders, she thought.
Turns out Epps is now one of those.
With graduations and defections, Epps is one of just two players on the Cats’ roster that has played more than a season at Kentucky.
She needed to find her voice quickly, Mitchell told her.
After that not-so-great practice, he pulled her aside and reminded her of that new, not-so-comfortable role.
“I told her, ‘You’ve got to coach Taylor Murray, you’ve got to coach Batouly Camara; you know what needs to happen,’” Mitchell recalled.
“She’s a very smart person so I just think you have to make sure they understand how important (they are), because maybe they don’t understand, what it’s going to mean if they say something,” he continued.
“It’s just a focus, it’s a commitment that we have to make and we have to work. It’s hard work doing these things that we’re trying to do, but I just don’t think she recognizes sometimes how important she is.”
After that bad practice, Epps was on the floor the next day directing teammates, saying the difficult things, trying to be what her coach asked her to be.
She learned something valuable: “Just one person’s voice can make three other people talk, and it’s just good to see that.”
Now it’s not just her own voice that senior guard Janee Thompson hears when things need to be said in the locker room and on the floor.
“I think Makayla noticed that we needed someone else to step up and fill that void, vocally,” Thompson said. “And her actions, what she does on the court and in practices as well, she’s done a great job with that.”
Epps will be key for the Cats (11-0) as they start league play beginning on Sunday at Auburn. The first-team All-Southeastern Conference player has a solid stat sheet.
She leads the SEC in assists per game and is No. 16 nationally in that stat. Epps is tied for 13th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio.
But she’s going to have to be a different kind of leader if Kentucky wants to contend for another SEC championship.
“She needs to be the best player on the court,” Mitchell said. “That’s defense, rebounding, leadership, offense, all of it. That’s what she needs to feel like. ‘I’m going to be the best player no matter what.’ … That’s the mentality she needs to have. Whether it’s true or not in the game, that’s what her mentality needs to be.”
Thompson, who averages 13.7 points, 6.5 assists and 2.5 rebounds, has enjoyed watching Epps grow into her expanded role.
“It’s a big step up from where she was last year,” the senior said. “She still has progress she’s going to make. I don’t think she’s the player she’s eventually going to be yet, but I’m liking what I’m seeing and hearing.”
No. 7 Kentucky at Auburn
When: 3 p.m.
Records: UK 11-0; Auburn 10-3
Series: Auburn leads 25-19
Last meeting: UK won 78-57 on Jan. 8, 2015, in Memorial Coliseum
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630