When Kentucky went into the locker room down one point at halftime of its NCAA Tournament opener on Friday, Makayla Epps tried not to get emotional.
“This 20 minutes is all I have,” the senior told her teammates. “This is it.”
It required a gargantuan effort against a Belmont team that refused to go away, but the star guard and the Cats prolonged their season with a 73-70 win in Memorial Coliseum.
Kentucky’s seniors led the way with Epps hitting a career-best five three-pointers and scoring 30 points in the victory. She had plenty of help from fellow senior Evelyn Akhator, who had 22 points and 10 rebounds.
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“Two huge performances by our seniors who don’t want this season to end, and we needed everything we could get from both of them,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said after Kentucky’s seventh win in nine games.
The victory set up a second-round game against Ohio State — and former teammate Linnae Harper — on Sunday in Memorial Coliseum. The Buckeyes knocked off Western Kentucky in the other first-round game Friday.
But to even get to the second round on Sunday at home, Kentucky had to find a way past a difficult Belmont team that came into the tournament on a 21-game win streak.
Twice the Bruins (27-6) bounced back from double-digit deficits to keep the game tight, first in the second quarter when they closed out the half on a 10-3 run to take a 36-35 halftime lead behind Kylee Smith, who had 16 of her 23 points in that quarter.
Belmont outrebounded UK 20-9 in the first half, including 13-4 in the second quarter.
“Teams don’t outrebound us unless we’re (being) outhustled,” Akhator said. “We talked about it as a team. We just had to get going. We don’t want to go home, so we need to be able to fight.”
Not a lot could be done schematically or strategically, Mitchell said. It was about plain, old-fashioned effort.
“We really got down and dejected and stopped hustling; I didn’t have a lot that I could tell them,” Mitchell said of the halftime chat. “Until we got the hustle turned around, there really wasn’t anything we could do to help them.”
Kentucky came out of the break reinvigorated, running off 13 unanswered points to extend the lead to 12 points again. The Cats (22-10) shot 81.8 percent from the field in that quarter.
But Belmont wasn’t done, holding the Cats to 18.8 percent shooting in the final quarter and making a game of it late.
“We have a lot of heart and fight,” a teary-eyed Darby Maggard said afterward. “No matter what the circumstances are, we are never going to give up.”
They continued to fight, even when Kentucky led by as many as seven points with 1:25 to play. Maggard hit a three-pointer with 31 seconds left to cut the Cats’ advantage to 68-66. The sophomore finished with 15 points.
Forward Sally McCabe added 16 points and 12 rebounds.
Belmont would get as close as one point, 69-68, with 13 seconds to play on a layup by Smith.
“The last minute — that’s what I love about coaching — just watching your kids make plays and knowing that they’ve trusted their training for the last 120 practices or whatever it is,” Newbauer continued. “They’ve trusted it so much that when they’re getting punched — they didn’t just get up, they jumped up. It was fun.”
Kentucky jumped up after it got punched, too.
And the Cats had answers even when things weren’t going their way.
“The last minute, I was like get the ball to Maci Morris,” said Epps of UK’s sophomore, who made seven of eight free throws in the final 37 seconds to help seal the victory.
Morris finished the game with 15 points, four assists, three rebounds and two steals. She nailed a huge three-pointer with 5:22 to go that helped halt a Belmont surge.
Morris shrugged when asked about that make.
“That three she didn’t think much of, that was a huge play in the game,” Mitchell said. “That may have been the play of the game.”
Maybe that was the play of the game, but Epps and Akhator were the players of the game, extending their season for another couple days, with the hope of advancing to the regional in Rupp Arena in a week.
Whenever Belmont had a big move, Kentucky’s seniors responded.
Epps was a difference maker, the Bruins’ coach said.
“She’s crafty — crafty with the bounce, crafty with her body and creating contact,” he said of Epps, who had never made more than three three-pointers in a game in her four seasons at Kentucky.
Belmont packed the lane, daring her to shoot from outside — and she did, making five of eight attempts.
“She can do it all,” Newbauer said. “And she believes she can.”
Kentucky vs. Ohio State
What: NCAA Tournament Lexington Regional second-round game
Where: Memorial Coliseum
Records: No. 4 seed Kentucky 22-10, No. 5 seed Ohio State (27-6)