It was hard to leave Southeastern Conference Tournament early.
But Kentucky’s players seemed excited to get ready for the next step in postseason, which likely will be as a top four seed and a chance to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve got to keep the momentum going,” UK senior Makayla Epps said after the 89-77 loss to South Carolina on Saturday night. “They’re one of the top teams in the country, a top team in our conference. If we’re hanging in there neck and neck with them down the wire, that’s saying what we’re capable of doing.”
Epps hopes Kentucky can carry some of that momentum that into the bigger tournament.
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No. 20 Kentucky will wait until March 13 to find out its destination and opponent for the NCAA Tournament, which starts on March 17.
Before tipoff on Saturday, ESPN bracket guru Charlie Creme had the Cats as a No. 4 seed playing in the Rupp Arena region.
He also placed UK in Memorial Coliseum for the first two rounds of the tournament, first facing No. 13-seed Belmont. The Bruins defeated Eastern Kentucky in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament championship game earlier on Saturday.
The top seed in that bracket is Notre Dame. Several times this week, Creme said there still was a chance that UK could move up to a No. 3 seed depending on how the other tournaments work out.
After two straight losses midway through conference play, Kentucky’s name was missing from the top 16 teams released by the NCAA Tournament selection committee. But it returned for the final reveal.
Since then UK has topped a third-ranked Mississippi State team and advanced to the semifinals of the conference tournament. The Cats were 14th in the RPI going into the semifinals.
A chance to return home had Epps excited.
“Evelyn (Akhator) and I had a memorable Senior Night,” she said of the overtime win over the Bulldogs there. “The opportunity to play in Memorial again is something we’re looking forward to, if the opportunity comes our way.”
Junior forward Alyssa Rice hoped the committee would give UK the chance to keep playing in front of their fans.
“Just having that home field advantage, especially with our support system we have at home and having our fans there to cheer us on gives us that energy and that extra boost when we’re in these big games,” she said.
Some seasons, the nearly two-week layover between the conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament feels impossibly long to Kentucky’s players.
But they likely will need all of that time to recuperate from the SEC Tournament this week, which saw the Cats lose starting point guard Taylor Murray to a head and neck injury.
In the semifinal loss to South Carolina, reserve guard Jaida Roper also suffered a head injury in the fourth quarter and she’s being evaluated, Mitchell said.
Roper likely will be in the concussion protocol like Murray, but Mitchell said after 24 hours from her injury, Murray seemed to be improving.
“It looks promising right now. We’re very optimistic as you can be in these situations,” he said of Murray’s situation. “She’s a really tough kid, real honest kid. She’ll let us know how she’s doing. You’ll know where she stands with that. She’ll communicate well with us. … I would be hopeful, optimistic that we’d have her for the NCAA tournament.”
Several other Kentucky players also suffered bumps and bruises, including Evelyn Akhator, who twisted an ankle and had to have it re-taped, and Epps, who took a hard fall and sat for a minute to catch her breath.
Others like Maci Morris and Makenzie Cann played all but a few seconds of the full 40-minute game and probably could use some time in the cold tub.
‘Glad I’m back now’
One player who knows all about the concussion protocol is Jessica Hardin, who missed nearly every game of conference play coming back from a head injury she sustained in the Duke game on Dec. 29.
The former Wayne County standout who walked on after UK’s tumultuous offseason and was granted a scholarship before the season started, returned on Feb. 19 against Florida.
“It was definitely frustrating,” she said of missing so many games. “I just wanted to help my team and contribute however I could. They were doing well and I was cheering them on.”
Hardin played 10 minutes in the semifinal loss and got two rebounds, and she hopes to be a factor in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
It was difficult, especially early in the concussion protocol to be away from her teammates, but Hardin is happy to be on the floor again.
“It (reminded me) not to take it for granted because this is special,” she said. “I’m glad I’m back now. It’s really exciting.”