Without Epps and Akhator, UK women's basketball will have to use depth, versatility
The statistical loss is a little bit shocking.
With the graduation of its two senior leaders and its two leading scorers, Kentucky has a massive hole to fill.
With no more Makayla Epps or Evelyn Akhator, the UK women return just slightly more than half their points scored last season.
The Cats lost 42 percent of their rebounding, 35 percent of their assists, 38 percent of their steals and 39 percent of their blocks when both Epps and Akhator moved on to the WNBA.
This new season, which starts on Nov. 10 against Sacramento State, is “going to be an interesting journey,” Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said during Tuesday’s media day in Memorial Coliseum.
“A lot of statistical things we’ll have to replace with the loss of Makayla and Evelyn,” he said. “And that’s really evident to everyone.”
What isn’t evident to everyone is what happens to Kentucky this season, how it replaces its star power and grows into a new team with a new identity.
But in many ways the Cats’ new identity sounds a bit familiar.
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The aggressive, up-tempo, defensive style that helped Mitchell and UK become regular fixtures in the NCAA Tournament looks like it’s about to make a comeback.
“I believe (our) identity will be hustle, quickness, speed, athleticism, try to force the other team to be uncomfortable and make some mistakes,” Mitchell said.
Kentucky’s coaches think they have assembled a roster of newcomers that will help the Cats revert to their old brand.
UK returns three starters in guards Taylor Murray and Maci Morris along with senior forward Alyssa Rice, as well as role players such as guards Makenzie Cann and Jaida Roper.
They also add six players who each showed speed, length and athleticism in an open practice on Tuesday afternoon.
There’s forward Ogechi Anyagaligbo, who sat out last season as a transfer from Stony Brook, along with five newcomers who are a bit of a question mark. The group was ranked in the top 20 by the All-Star Girls Report, but went unranked by other recruiting services.
The four freshmen — Dorie Harrison (6-3 forward), KeKe McKinney (6-1 forward), Tatyana Wyatt (6-2 forward) and Kameron Roach (5-6 guard) — along with junior college transfer Amanda Paschal (5-7 guard) give the Cats some added depth and speed that could lend itself well to the old game plan.
“What we have really tried to talk about so far and give them confidence in is that speed and quickness and athleticism gives them the ability to be a really tough team to go against,” Mitchell said.
“You have to go and earn that and you cannot talk about it. You have to really work hard to be that kind of team.”
This latest Kentucky team, with six newcomers and six veterans off of last season’s 22-11 team that lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, is the end product of the season of tumult in 2015.
In that span, UK saw seven players with remaining eligibility, two signed recruits and a 2016 verbal commitment part ways with the program for various reasons. That exodus left Kentucky with a depleted roster that included several walk-ons competing last year.
That situation has created an interesting marriage of sorts, Mitchell said. First, the group that stayed around through the difficulties and now these new players, whom he called hard working and positive.
It’s all made this season’s rebuild — not a word Mitchell is using — easier even with so many new faces.
That doesn’t mean replacing players such as Epps and Akhator, but finding a new identity with this new team.
“I don’t think a lot about trying to replace them individually,” he said. “The kind of team that we have, a freshman is not going to step in and replace Makayla Epps. A freshman isn’t going to step in and replace Evelyn Akhator.
“You hope your seniors are better, your juniors are better, your sophomores are better and then your freshmen get better throughout time. You do it as a team and you do it as a group.”
Important upcoming dates
Oct. 13: Big Blue Madness in Rupp Arena
Nov. 5: Exhibition game vs. Southern Indiana in Memorial Coliseum
Nov. 10: Season opener vs. Sacramento State in Memorial Coliseum