Like her father before her, Makayla Epps walked to center court, leaned down and gently kissed the interlocking “UK.”
It was the start of a sweet sendoff for the guard, who along with fellow senior Evelyn Akhator helped No. 22 Kentucky upset third-ranked Mississippi State 78-75 in overtime on Thursday night.
On their Senior Night, the duo combined for 49 points, 18 rebounds, six assists and four steals.
Epps was quick to point out she had just two of those rebounds, but one turned out to be the most important of the game.
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The senior tracked down a loose ball off a missed three-pointer and put it back in for the go-ahead score with eight seconds left in overtime.
“She owns me,” Mississippi State Coach Vic Schaefer said of Epps after the Bulldogs’ second loss of the season. “She’s single-handedly beat me both times here. … She’s a heck of a player and she’s just got a real presence about her.”
It was a huge play on a night of huge plays on both sides of the ball — many by Akhator, who scored 22 of her 27 points in the fourth quarter and extra period. The senior added a game-best 16 rebounds for her 15th double-double of the year.
Epps, who scored 10 points to open the second half and finished with 22 points and five assists, “did not want to lose tonight,” UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said.
Mitchell got a little choked up as he addressed the Memorial Coliseum crowd after the game, going back to a darker time in recent history when the Cats were down to six scholarship players after a rash of defections.
“Several months ago things were pretty rough around here and we were going through some hard times,” Mitchell said after UK’s fifth straight victory. “These two seniors said they were going to make things happen and shock the world.
“I’m not only proud of them tonight, but so grateful for these two seniors tonight. I love you guys.”
The victory, coupled with Texas A&M’s loss to South Carolina, guaranteed the Cats an all-important bye in the Southeastern Conference Tournament next week. Kentucky’s regular-season finale is at No. 7 South Carolina on Sunday.
The victory also gave UK its eighth straight 20-win season and more than 10 regular-season SEC victories for the first time since the 2012-13 season.
It was an unforgettable night for many reasons, Mitchell said.
“The best feeling for us is Makayla and Evelyn will always have tonight,” he said of UK, which has now won eight straight Senior Night games. “You only had one chance at it and now that they have it you can’t take that from them ever. … That will be one we don’t soon forget if we ever do. I don’t think we ever will.”
It was definitely unforgettable for Epps, who busted through her Senior Night hoop into the arms of Mitchell and her parents, including former Kentucky standout Anthony Epps.
It was a full-circle moment for the elder Epps and his daughter, whom he held in a UK cheerleading outfit at center court for his own Senior Night nearly 20 years ago.
The moment wasn’t lost on Makayla Epps.
“I told everybody that asked me I wasn’t going to cry, and I almost cried,” the senior confessed. “There was a whole lot of people out there and I feel like I couldn’t cry and then go play my best basketball. … Just really special to me.”
The game did not start out all that special for the Cats, who won their 11th straight over Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs made four of their first five shots and UK missed five of its first six, trailing 10-2 after five minutes.
But the Cats, mostly on aggressive drives to the basket by Taylor Murray and Maci Morris, made five of their next seven shots and trailed by just a point, 19-18 after one quarter. Murray had 14 points for UK in the win.
Morgan William appeared to give the Bulldogs a 22-18 edge with a contested three-pointer at the quarter buzzer, but officials reviewed and waved it off.
“We were a little disjointed offensively,” Mitchell said of UK’s early struggles. “I thought we were forcing a couple things. … It was really good when we started getting the pace where we wanted to.”
The second quarter was a back-and-forth affair, with UK taking the lead twice, including for a final time in the half 30-28 on two Murray free throws.
Blair Schaefer came off the bench and hit two three-pointers in the final three minutes of the first half to keep the Bulldogs in it as UK asserted itself. Her three with 52 seconds to go gave MSU a 31-30 halftime lead.
Behind Epps, UK seemingly seized control early in the third quarter. The senior guard went on her own 8-0 run to open the second half and helped the Cats grab their largest lead of the game 38-31. Mississippi State missed six straight to open the half.
But then it was Kentucky’s chance to go cold, going without a field goal for almost five minutes as State went on an 11-2 run to recapture the edge.
A Makenzie Cann three-pointer with 43 seconds left in the third helped keep Kentucky afloat and the Cats trailed just 44-43 despite the lengthy drought. Epps had 10 of UK’s 13 points in the third quarter.
It was Akhator’s turn to turn it on in the fourth quarter. After scoring just five points in the first three quarters, she had 14 in the fourth quarter.
Kentucky (20-8, 11-4 SEC) grabbed a four-point lead with 1:12 to go on an Epps drive, but Victoria Vivians answered with a three-pointer a few seconds later. A William shot in the lane tied it 67-67.
Vivians finished with 27 points and seven rebounds. William added 20 points, five assists and four rebounds for the Bulldogs, who had a seven-game win streak halted.
Akhator’s shot attempt in the lane to win it in regulation was rejected by the Bulldogs (27-2, 13-2), and the game went to overtime. The senior had the Cats’ first eight points of the overtime period.
“That kid just attacked us off the bounce all second half,” Vic Schaefer said.
It was what she was trying to do.
“Epps and the rest of the team believed in me, they just gave me the ball,” said Akhator, who was two points shy of her career high. “I said yeah, I am going to attack them off the dribble, and I did.”
Mississippi State had a chance to tie or go ahead, but Vivians slipped in the lane with three seconds left in the game to give the ball back to the Cats.
It was one of the Bulldogs’ season-high 22 turnovers, unusual for a team that came into the game averaging just 13.2 per game.
“We just tried to do too much with the ball,” Schaefer said. “We had people trying to do things that they didn’t need to do.”
On the flip side, Kentucky coughed up the ball only nine times — just three coming in the second half and overtime.
“It was probably the game,” Mitchell said of the turnover margin against a Mississippi State team that is among the nation’s best defensively and had been whipping SEC opponents by nearly 17 points a game before Thursday night.
In a back-and-forth game, those hustle plays mattered and the turnovers mattered, Schaefer said.
“I don’t like getting outplayed or outhustled, but we did tonight and that’s my responsibility ... you have to take your hat off to Kentucky,” the Bulldogs coach said. “Those kids played extremely hard.”
No. 22 Kentucky at No. 7 South Carolina
2 p.m. Sunday (ESPNU)