As friends and teammates announced their intentions to transfer last season, two Kentucky guards kept each other grounded.
“We’d always tell each other we’d kill each other if one of us left,” Maci Morris joked of fellow sophomore guard Taylor Murray.
And over the course of eight months as players parted ways with Coach Matthew Mitchell and UK for various reasons, Morris and Murray were devising a plan.
“We knew when everybody left — especially playing as much as we did last year — that people were going to be looking up to us and we were going to have to help Epps and Evelyn lead the team,” Morris said of seniors Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator.
“We talked about that and making sure we always helped each other and had each other’s backs in practices and games. We just try to motivate each other even when we’re down on ourselves.”
All of that back and forth — those chats in their shared apartment last season — helped create a bond between the shooting guard from Bell County and the point guard from Odenton, Md.
Kentucky (11-6, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) would be lost without Morris and Murray, who are third and fourth on the team in scoring, each averaging about 33 minutes a game.
The dynamic guard duo has been a huge boost for UK during this rebuilding season.
“Both of those are at the very core of our leadership group, and as sophomores that’s saying a lot,” Mitchell said recently as his Cats prepare to take on Georgia (10-7, 2-2) at Memorial Coliseum on Sunday. “I’m real proud of them.”
Their connection started at the Big Blue Madness they both attended as recruits, Murray said. They exchanged numbers and kept in touch.
They didn’t start out as roommates, but some rooms got switched around early in their freshman year and they started living together.
“Taylor’s really quiet when she doesn’t know you,” Morris said. “We started hanging out and becoming friends once we got here during the summer.”
Now, the two are inseparable off the court, including Murray going home to the mountains with Morris for Thanksgiving.
“It’s nice to just be surrounded by her family,” Murray said. “They’re just very giving.”
Morris promises that Murray, who is averaging 12.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists a game, is only quiet until you get to know her.
“She dances all the time, sings,” Morris said. “I’ll be in my room and she’ll be in the shower and she’ll start singing at the top of her lungs and I’ll start cracking up.”
The chatter between the two off the court has been key to both growing into better players on the court.
“We just try to help each other,” Murray said. “Whether it’s me shooting, she’ll help me with my form. Or me defensively, I’ll tell her to get low or get more active with her feet. We just encourage each other each and every day.”
During games, Murray will bug Morris when she sees defensive mistakes.
“She gets on me all the time in games where she’s like: ‘You’re not moving your feet. You have to move your feet,’” said Morris, who averages 11.6 points and 2.8 rebounds a game.
The head coach has seen the players’ confidence grow as they’ve taken on bigger roles.
“Just really impressed with their mindsets and where they are,” Mitchell said of his sophomore leaders. “Their willingness to take responsibility when they’re not doing what they can do and (being) committed to correcting mistakes and just playing with poise.”
So while some outside the Kentucky program might worry about its future when the Cats’ two leading scorers in Epps and Akhator graduate, Mitchell feels good about it.
He knows that along with junior Alyssa Rice, there are strong leaders in place for next season.
“Those people know and have been through a lot at Kentucky and know what we’re about,” Mitchell continued. “I feel really, really confident in the future and I’m really, really excited about that part of it as far as from a leadership perspective.
“I think we’ll be in good hands with those kids going forward.”
Georgia at Kentucky
When: 3 p.m.
Records: UK 11-6 (2-2 SEC); Georgia 10-7 (2-2)
Series: Georgia leads 36-16
Last meeting: UK won 64-53 on Jan. 10, 2016, in Athens, Ga.
Online: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Probable starters: Haley Clark, 5-9, G, Jr. (5.2 pts, 3.9 asts); Simone Costa, 5-10, G, Jr. (5.6 pts, 2.1 rebs); Pachis Roberts, 5-11, G/F, Sr. (13.1 pts, 7.4 rebs, 3.2 asts); Mackenzie Engram, 6-2, F, Jr. (11.5 pts, 6.0 rebs); Caliya Robinson, 6-3, F, So. (15.4 pts, 6.6 rebs)
Key reserves: Shanea Armbrister, 6-2, G, Sr. (6.5 pts, 4.1 rebs); Halle Washington, 6-2, F, Sr. (4.4 pts, 2.5 rebs); Stephanie Paul, 6-1, F, Fr. (3.1 pts)
Probable starters: Maci Morris, 6-0, G, So. (11.6 pts, 2.6 rebs, 1.8 asts); Evelyn Akhator, 6-3, F, Sr. (14.5 pts, 10.4 rebs); Taylor Murray, 5-6, G, So. (12.7 pts, 4.8 rebs, 2.5 asts); Makayla Epps, 5-10, G, Sr. (16.9 pts, 4.2 rebs, 3.8 asts); Alyssa Rice, 6-3, C, Jr. (3.9 pts, 5.1 rebs)
Key reserves: Makenzie Cann, 6-1, G, Jr. (7.1 pts, 3.9 rebs); Jessica Hardin, 5-8, G, Sr. (3.5 pts); Paige Poffenberger, 5-8, G, Fr. (1.4 pts); Jaida Roper, 5-6, PG, Fr. (1.9 pts, 1.3 asts)