With careful hands and a caring heart, she prepared the dish for her friend.
Although Evelyn Akhator’s teammate is a bit skeptical of what she sees. And smells.
“That smell is out of my jurisdiction,” Epps tells her Kentucky teammate with a crinkled-up nose.
Akhator promises Epps that the meal is simply a variation on chicken and rice. They share the meal together.
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“I’m excited she tried it this year,” Akhator said laughing. “I had her just try something and I think she liked it.”
The aromatic dish is Akhator’s way of sharing part of her home — so far away in Lagos, Nigeria — with Epps, who has shared a part of her Kentucky home for the better part of two years.
Theirs is an unlikely friendship: Akhator a quiet, introspective junior-college transfer who left her family and friends to come play basketball in the United States, and Epps, an outspoken, unapologetic Kentucky girl who never strays too far from her home in Lebanon.
She has given as much as anyone could ever give in the amount of time she has been here because she has given her all.
It’s their friendship that helped Akhator get over the crippling homesickness she felt at times last season, especially when things were difficult for Kentucky.
Akhator was able to fall back on her friendship with Epps, who had a natural curiosity about Nigeria.
Are there cheetahs running down the street? Epps asked a couple of years ago.
“No, Epps,” Akhator laughed, rolling her eyes.
Getting to know the forward has made Epps want to learn even more.
“I’ve never been there, never really wanted to go there, but she made me want to know more,” Epps said of Akhator.
When the forward went back home in May to see her family, whom she hadn’t seen in person in more than a year, she enjoyed the visit. But she started to miss her UK coaches and teammates, especially Epps.
“I’d call her and FaceTime her when I went home and we’d just talk,” Akhator said. “She was one person that I really connected with when I came to visit. There’s this real connection between us.”
Those calls when she’d get to hear Epps’ voice and her distinctly Kentucky accent (which makes Akhator chuckle loudly) made the forward ready to get back to the United States and her new, extended family.
“When I went home, I was like, I need to come back to Kentucky,” she said. “It’s like my home away from home here.”
The feeling of home is mutual, UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said.
“She is someone that I have been connected to for a long time and will remain connected to,” he said. “We talk about it all the time that we are family at this point.”
Coming from junior college, where she was the National Player of the Year, was an adjustment for Akhator, but she’s settled in nicely at Kentucky and is a huge part of the reason the Cats are vying for high seeds in both the upcoming Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments.
“She has given as much as anyone could ever give in the amount of time she has been here because she has given her all,” Mitchell said of his senior forward, who has 782 career points and 587 rebounds in her two seasons at UK.
Akhator has had a double-double in 14 of UK’s 27 games this season, and she has 27 career double-doubles, fourth most in program history despite only playing two seasons for the Cats.
The senior is second (behind Epps) in scoring at 14.9 points a game and averages 10.4 rebounds this season.
Her humility and work ethic are more impressive than her statistics, Epps said.
“She works so hard,” Epps said of Akhator, who is 14th in the league in scoring and third in rebounding and field goal percentage (60.2). “She never complains.”
There might be early-morning workouts. There might be a terrible practice where the coaches are screaming, but Akhator has a smile on her face even though her life hasn’t always been easy.
“You never hear her say, ‘I’m tired,’” Epps said. “You never hear her say she can’t do something or it’s not going to work. You never hear her bickering. Whatever Coach asks her to do, she does it with a smile on her face.”