University of Louisville

Epps, Harper coming on strong as Kentucky women visit Louisville

UK's Linnae Harper (15) and Makayla Epps (25) have become best friends over the past year. Here they celebrated the team's defeat of Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament in March.
UK's Linnae Harper (15) and Makayla Epps (25) have become best friends over the past year. Here they celebrated the team's defeat of Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament in March.

It was the lamest of introductions.

Kentucky's duo of 2013 McDonald's All-Americans ran into each other at the pre-game festivities.

The guard from Chicago and her future UK teammate from the back roads of Kentucky didn't seem to have much in common.

"It was really awkward," former Marion County star Makayla Epps remembered. "She was like, 'Hi, I'm Linnae.' And I was like, 'Hi, I'm Makayla.' We were really shy."

That might be the last time the two had a quiet moment together.

Now, one doesn't go anywhere without the other and when they're on the court together playing for No. 13 Kentucky, it's anything but subdued.

"Even in warm-ups we're trying to find ways to bring energy to the team," said Harper, the former standout from Chicago's Whitney Young High School. "That will have an effect on the whole team and affect the whole game.

"We're just trying to come out and bring flavor and bring that excitement to the team so that it becomes contagious."

The guards are the Cats' second- and third-leading scorers this season, both coming off the bench.

There probably are more steady players, better defenders, better pure shooters on this UK team about to take on an unbeaten No. 7 Louisville on Sunday.

But there aren't two players who spark the Cats (7-1) the way Epps and Harper can.

"They have a zest for life that is infectious," UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "I mean, it really is.

"They're kids that enjoy living, and they're not moping around. They're just energetic, enthusiastic personalities, and we really need that on this team because we need to be energetic and enthusiastic as a basketball team."

They are taking the phrase sophomore slump and flipping it into a sophomore jump.

And they're taking their teammates with them.

Take the Cats' overtime win over Oklahoma last week in the Virgin Islands. The sophomores each finished with a double-double — with career highs in points and rebounds — Epps with 29 points and 10 boards and Harper with 22 points and 12 rebounds.

Epps, who has scored in double digits in all but one game this season, is just two points shy of being tied for the team's leading scorer this season averaging 15.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists. She needs just 34 more points to match her scoring total from all of last season.

"She can get to the bucket and really make things happen," Mitchell said of Epps, who has played all but one position for UK this season and is making 50.6 percent of her shots and 33.3 percent from three-point range.

Epps is the team's assists leader and Harper is the team's steals leader.

"They would be starting anywhere else," UK senior guard Bria Goss said of Epps and Harper. "They're silly and they're fun to be around; so they bring a lot of energy."

The roommates, whom Goss said are more like twins, don't have any sort of competition going for who can score more points or grab more rebounds. Instead, they have a daily competition going for who can get the team going.

Harper, who averages 11.5 points and 6.1 rebounds, said whenever Epps comes off the bench first, she gives her a pointed look.

"It's time to do work; do what you gotta do," Harper said she's channeling to Epps. "When I get in the game, I'll feed off that and we'll start playing together and eventually the team will go along with that and we'll start playing better."

When the Cats were headed into overtime at the Paradise Jam Island Tournament, Epps was the leader.

"Makayla was the one on the bench saying, 'Hey, this is a heck of a lineup we have here on this bench. We're going to go out here and win this game,'" Mitchell recalled. "(She was) very vocal, very verbal. It's important and it's good."

The Kentucky Miss Basketball just sees it as part of her job.

"We have some flavor," she said of herself and Harper. "You've gotta bring some energy to the team. You don't want to have a dead team. Nobody wants a quiet team."

Epps and Harper have come a long way from the uncharacteristically quiet guards who crossed paths at the McDonald's All-American Game.

It's like they've known each other for a decade.

"We're from two different worlds: I'm from the city; she's from the country, but there's lots of common ground," Harper said.

And they've shown each other a thing or two about their worlds.

For Harper, it was a trip to Lebanon.

"I saw some things I've never seen before and she showed me a good time," Harper laughed. "She had me chasing chickens. I've never done that before."

Sitting nearby, the visual of Harper chasing chickens had Epps trying to choke back laughter.

"My grandmother owns some chickens and I was out chasing them, showing (Linnae) a good time," Epps said. "She came out of my back door and was like, 'Is that a real live cow right there?'"

Together they hope to take Kentucky to new places, too, like maybe a Final Four or beyond.

That road starts at Louisville, a team UK has beaten three straight times.

It's going to be the most difficult of tasks for the Cats on Sunday at the KFC/Yum Center, Mitchell said. Louisville is coming off an impressive 86-52 win over a ranked Iowa team.

"This will be a major test for us all the way around," the UK coach said. "This is clearly the best team that we have played up to this point and it's on their home court.

"They're a really, really impressive team. We'll have to guard well as a team. It won't just be on the post players. We will have to do a fantastic job of team defense and we will have to play real hard."

That's where Epps and Harper come in. Kentucky is going to need even more from the sophomores in the next few weeks.

"We need some sparks flying on this team," Mitchell said. "And Makayla and Linnae keep that going, and that's good for us. They make dynamic plays, and that gets the crowd going ... their personality is very important to the team."