UK Women's Basketball

Kentucky’s ‘emotional leader,’ senior Epps finding fun on floor again

Kentucky senior Makayla Epps liked a charge call as Kentucky played Missouri on Jan. 5. “She has a huge heart; she needs connection with people,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said of the guard.
Kentucky senior Makayla Epps liked a charge call as Kentucky played Missouri on Jan. 5. “She has a huge heart; she needs connection with people,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said of the guard. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

When Makayla Epps is struggling, her coach doesn’t bombard her with statistics or film study.

He invites Kentucky’s senior to breakfast.

“She has a huge heart; she needs connection with people,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said of the guard, who didn’t seem like herself in recent losses at Duke and Tennessee. “She needs some time where we can just spend and talk.”

The breakfast chats were a product of Epps’ minor brush with the law several seasons ago. It was then that the player and her coach started spending more time getting to know each other outside of basketball.

“During that time, we really connected,” Mitchell explained. “I was able to share some real screw-ups I’ve had in my life and struggles I had as a young person, and why I didn’t want her to go down some of the roads I had to go down.”

He saw Epps going down a road recently that was littered with self-doubt and worry.

“She wants to win so badly,” Mitchell said of Epps, who is fourth in the Southeastern Conference in scoring at 16.8 points a game. “She loves her team; she loves Kentucky; she really wants her senior season to be special.”

Would this final year at Kentucky be a failure? Was she doing enough? Why wasn’t her outside shot falling like it was before?

Those were just some of the things that had been weighing on the guard from Lebanon, whose team is 10-5 overall after playing the fourth-toughest schedule in the country.

The Cats, who are 1-1 to open league play, will face Texas A&M (11-4, 1-1) on Sunday at Memorial Coliseum.

“I feel personally I struggled against Duke and I struggled against Tennessee,” Epps said this week. “Two big teams, two big stages, games that the team needed me to play well.”

On the road coming off exams and the holiday break, Epps’ shooting percentages weren’t awful, but she wasn’t feeling good about her game — and it showed on both ends of the floor.

After the breakfast meeting and a lot more repetition in the gym — especially on her outside shot — Epps started to look like the guard who won SEC Player of the Week in December after averaging 26 points, 9.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists in games against Louisville and Oklahoma earlier in the season.

Epps’ numbers against Missouri on Thursday night (17 points, five assists, five rebounds) looked more like her averages, but Mitchell saw more specific things from the senior that signaled that she was letting go of some of that worry.

“You saw her smile (Thursday) and have some fun out there, and that’s what we’ve got to get back to doing with her,” Mitchell said. “She’s got to be our emotional leader, and so she can’t be down in the dumps and frustrated.

“As coaches, we’ve really tried to help her with that because defenses aren’t letting her get to the rim. She’s so strong and she was able to make some plays around the bucket, and that was really good for us.”

It took some encouragement from teammates, too.

“We believe in her more than she believes in herself sometimes,” sophomore guard Maci Morris said of Epps. “And we just want her to believe in herself as much as we believe in her.”

Mitchell telling Epps that he hadn’t seen her smile in a while on the court was a breakfast wake-up call for the senior star. She started to see the same thing when she watched film.

“When I’m out there having a good time and I’m smiling — my smile is contagious,” she said. “We smile at each other all the time on the court. We laugh and have a good time out there.”

News and notes

Former Tennessee All-American and WNBA All-Star Tamika Catchings will make her television debut on the SEC Network game between UK and the Aggies.

Catchings has loads of connections to the Kentucky coaching staff, including playing at Tennesee with UK assistants Kyra Elzy and Niya Butts as well as playing for assistant Lin Dunn when she was head coach of the Indiana Fever.

▪  Texas A&M features one of the league’s top scoring threats in sophomore Danni Williams, who averages 17.6 points a game, second in the league. She also leads the SEC in minutes played at 36.3 per game. Kentucky’s Epps is third in the league in minutes played at 34.7 a game.

▪  This will be a battle of the league’s top two rebounders as well with the Aggies’ Anriel Howard (11.9 per game) and UK’s Evelyn Akhator (10.5) facing off. Howard leads the conference in both offensive rebounds (4.5) and defensive rebounds (7.3).

Those aren’t the only statistical categories where Texas A&M shines. It also has the league’s second-highest field goal percentage player in Khaalia Hillsman (62.3 percent) and its assists leader in Curtyce Knox (9.7 per game). Knox also is fourth in the conference in steals with 36 this season.

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Sunday

Texas A&M at No. 24 Kentucky

When: 2 p.m.

Records: Texas A&M 11-4 (1-1 SEC); UK 10-5 (1-1 SEC)

Series: UK leads 4-2

Last meeting: UK won 71-58 on Feb. 28, 2016, in College Station, Texas

TV: SEC Network

Radio: WLAP-AM 630

Matchups

Texas A&M

Probable starters: Khaalia Hillsman, 6-5, C, Jr. (16.6 pts, 7.9 rebs); Anriel Howard, 5-11, F, So. (11.7 pts, 11.9 rebs); Curtyce Knox, 5-7, G, Sr. (8.6 pts, 9.5 asts); Danni Williams, 5-10, G, So. (17.6 pts, 1.9 asts); Jasmine Lumpkin, 6-0, F/G, Jr. (8.9 pts, 4.1 rebs)

Key reserves: Taylor Cooper, 5-9, F, Sr. (5.7 pts, 2.2 asts); Walnatia Wright, 6-2, C, Jr. (2.1 pts, 2.0 rebs); Jasmine Williams, 5-10, G, Fr. (1.9 pts, 1.0 rebs); Aahliyah Jackson, 5-10, G, Fr. (0.9 pts, 1.5 rebs)

Kentucky

Probable starters: Maci Morris, 6-0, G, So. (12.2 pts, 2.8 rebs, 1.9 asts); Evelyn Akhator, 6-3, F, Sr. (13.1 pts, 10.5 rebs); Taylor Murray, 5-6, G, So. (13.5 pts, 4.9 rebs, 2.2 asts); Makayla Epps, 5-10, G, Sr. (16.8 pts, 4.5 rebs, 4.0 asts); Alyssa Rice, 6-3, C, Jr. (3.9 pts, 5.5 rebs)

Key reserves: Makenzie Cann, 6-1, G, Jr. (7.5 pts, 3.9 rebs); Jessica Hardin, 5-8, G, Sr. (3.5 pts); Paige Poffenberger, 5-8, G, Fr. (1.1 pts); Jaida Roper, 5-6, PG, Fr. (1.9 pts, 1.4 asts)

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