UK Women's Basketball

Kentucky talking the talk so it can walk the walk in NCAA tourney

Emotional Akhator says love pushed this team beyond expectations

Seniors Evelyn Akhator and Makayla Epps spoke about the emotions and expectations that put the 2016-2017 Wildcats as a four-seed in the NCAA tournament.
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Seniors Evelyn Akhator and Makayla Epps spoke about the emotions and expectations that put the 2016-2017 Wildcats as a four-seed in the NCAA tournament.

Kentucky’s coaches spent the first season with Taylor Murray trying to get the quiet guard to speak up.

And now?

“I can’t get her to stop talking during the game,” UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said of the sophomore. “I try to get her to sit down and rest for a second, then she calls me back over to the sideline to talk to her to make sure we’re doing what we need to do. She’s doing a great job as a floor general.”

The Cats are getting their floor general back just in time for the start of the NCAA Tournament on Friday in Memorial Coliseum.

UK announced Thursday that Murray, who suffered whiplash and a neck strain late in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, was cleared to play again versus Belmont.

Getting her production back (12.7 points, five rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.1 steals) is key for Kentucky, but it’s the intangibles that probably mean more.

It’s that talking during the game and on the floor that has made Murray invaluable to the No. 18 Cats (21-10) this season, her coaches and teammates said.

During breaks in the game, Murray regularly can be found next to the UK bench talking to the coaches.

“A lot of it is strategy,” Mitchell said. “Like, ‘Hey, this is what is happening on the court,’ and I cannot tell you how helpful that is and how that aids me in trying to aid them.”

When Murray notices a team playing forward Evelyn Akhator from behind, she’ll encourage the coaches to change strategy.

“If there’s something we see, we’ll all say, ‘Hey, let’s run this. This will work against that,’” Murray said Thursday.

I want it so bad for them that sometimes that works against me. I get a little too amped up. … (Taylor Murray) is helping there too, like, ‘Coach, it’s fine. We’re OK.’

Matthew Mitchell, UK head coach

It’s been fun to watch the communication develop, said UK assistant coach Lin Dunn, who credited Mitchell with facilitating that.

“It’s empowered Taylor in some ways to come out of her shy, quiet self, and now she’s gone from not saying much to saying a lot, which I love,” the hall of fame coach said.

Sometimes it’s more than strategy.

Sometimes it’s a little psychiatry, too.

“I want it so bad for them that sometimes that works against me,” Mitchell admitted recently. “I get a little too amped up. … (Murray) is helping there too, like, ‘Coach, it’s fine. We’re OK.’”

After suffering a neck strain and whiplash on March 3, point guard Taylor Murray will be back on the court for the Wildcats as they take on Belmont in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Because of players like Murray and Makayla Epps, a natural point guard, Mitchell has developed a level of comfort with letting the team call plays and change defenses within the course of a game.

“We felt like we were always telling them what to do, and I think over the last couple of weeks one of the things that’s really helped this team is asking them for input,” Dunn said.

At the start of a game and during timeouts, Mitchell is encouraging the players to decide on what plays to run, which defenses they think will work best.

There’s no looking over your shoulder for a play call on a fast break, Epps said. The trust that’s come this season has made UK a much better team in transition.

“We just play through each other and play within each other,” Epps said of the improved court communication. “There’s a lot of trust and a strong bond between us so whoever calls the play, we have a lot of faith in that play call.”

We felt like we were always telling them what to do, and I think over the last couple of weeks one of the things that’s really helped this team is asking them for input.

Lin Dunn, UK assistant coach

Keeping the ball moving quickly — especially in transition — will be key as Kentucky takes on Belmont, winner of 21 straight games and 25 of its last 26.

The free-shooting Bruins (27-5), one of the country’s top three-point shooting teams, will test UK’s communication.

“They do a bunch of different things that are hard to prepare for in a couple of days, but we’ve really got to rely on what we’ve valued all year when we’ve been at our best,” Mitchell said. “We have to hustle, hustle, hustle tomorrow. … We’ll never be able to prepare for every single situation, so we have to rely on our hustle and defensive fundamentals. We have to stick together.”

Some fans might underestimate the power of good on-court communication, Epps said, but it’s been a big part of why this team has been successful this season.

“There have been times where communication has saved us, like with me getting beat off the dribble and someone else comes to take a charge and having my back and each other’s backs,” the senior explained. “We love each other, so why not just talk to each other on the basketball court to help us win?”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Friday

NCAA Tournament Lexington Regional

What: First-round doubleheader

Where: Memorial Coliseum

Noon: No. 4 seed Kentucky (21-10) vs. No. 13 Belmont (27-5)

About 2:30 p.m.: No. 12 seed Western Kentucky (27-6) vs. No. 5 Ohio State (26-6)

TV: Both games on ESPN2

Radio: UK game on WLAP-AM 630

Tickets: Available online at ukhoopstix.com, in person at the Joe Craft Center Ticket Office or via phone at 800-928-2287.

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