After a pulse revving first-round NCAA Tournament game Friday, Makayla Epps wrapped her fingers around Maci Morris’ wrist.
“Epps was checking her veins in the prayer circle there in the end and said she had ice water in there,” Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said, half joking about his sophomore guard. “She’s just a real cool customer.”
Morris made seven of eight free throw attempts in the final 37 seconds of a 73-70 Kentucky win over Belmont in the first round.
With three seconds to play, Kylee Smith’s layup got the Bruins within a point. Then Morris calmly walked to the free throw line.
If she missed just one of those two, the three-point happy Bruins would have had a good chance to break a lot of blue hearts.
“On those last ones, my heart was racing,” Mitchell continued. “I’ve been coaching over 20 years now and I still get amazed to watch these young people go up there in those situations and knock down those free throws.”
Morris made some defensive mistakes in the game, especially in the second quarter when Smith scored 16 of her 18 first-half points. Like he has many times before, Mitchell got on her.
But much like her time at the free throw line, Morris “doesn’t get real worked up about it,” Mitchell said.
“What I love about Maci is that I can get a little frustrated with her and she just keeps going.”
Belmont knew that UK seniors Epps and Akhator were going to have big games. Morris turned out to be an “X-factor” in the game, Coach Cameron Newbauer said.
The sophomore Miss Basketball from Bell County also had a key three-pointer with 5:32 to play when the Cats were struggling to find a shot and Belmont was making a move.
“She doesn’t need much daylight,” said Newbauer, who recruited Morris when he was an assistant coach at Louisville for a season. “I don’t think it was a breakdown on our part, I just think she hit a big shot.”
In the handshake line, Belmont’s coach smiled at Epps.
“I told her after the game, ‘You’ve never shot threes great,” he said of the UK senior, who is a career 31.2 percent shooter from long range. “We were going to make you.’”
And she made the Bruins pay for it, knocking down five from outside the arc, two more than she’d made in a game before.
Epps knocked a few back during warm-ups and a teammate said: “I want to see you do that in the game.”
The senior smiled and predicted she wouldn’t even take a three.
“Then I started the game shooting all threes,” she said. “So it’s just funny how the game works out, you never know what you’re going to be out there doing. The shots were open and I feel like I was feeling good.”
It wasn’t some stroke of luck, Epps’ coach said. After she shot just 25.6 percent from long range in the non-conference portion of the schedule, he challenged her to get better. She made 40 percent in league play.
Epps saw the hard work after practice pay off Friday.
“She is a great rhythm shooter,” Mitchell said of Epps, who made the first five three-pointers she tried and finished 5-for-8. “When she gets in rhythm and gets her legs underneath her and gets her elbow underneath the ball and really uses her legs and her footwork, she can shoot three-pointers well.”
‘Like I never left’
A trio of familiar faces who parted ways with UK returned to Memorial Coliseum with new teams on Friday in Linnae Harper with Ohio State and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Jaycee Coe with Western Kentucky.
Harper left UK before the start of last season and Goodin-Rogers left five games into the year. Coe opted to transfer a season before that.
“Coming back to Memorial, it was just like I never left,” said Goodin-Rogers, who had 10 points and nine rebounds for the Tops, who fell to the Buckeyes. “I wasn’t focused on that. I was focused on getting my team where we wanted to be.”
Coe missed five of her six shot attempts and finished with three points in seven minutes
For Ohio State, which will take on UK in the second round Sunday, Linnae Harper played 18 minutes, scoring two points on 1-for-5 shooting. She added three rebounds.
Murray’s own return
It wasn’t clear what Kentucky was going to get from Taylor Murray just one day after the sophomore guard was cleared for full contact again after suffering whiplash in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
There didn’t seem to be too much rust, though.
“She did a really good job,” Mitchell said. “She hadn’t played, just cleared for contact yesterday, so basically she played that game, six assists, zero turnovers, four points and some really good defensive plays off one practice. She handled herself well and think she will just get better from here.”
Murray, who played 34 minutes Friday, was happy to not be on the bench like she was for the SEC semifinals loss to South Carolina.
“It was just good to be out there with my team, just leading them, directing them, putting them in position to win,” she said.
Caitlyn Stroh contributed to this report.