Blair Green was not planning on staying home.
When the scholarship offers started rolling in early in her high school career, the 6-foot Harlan County girls basketball star envisioned California beaches or Tennessee tradition in her future.
“I never thought I would go to Kentucky,” Green says. “I wanted to be different, just do my own thing.”
Yet on a recruiting visit to UK before Green’s junior season of high school, the Wildcats coaches showed her a video. It consisted of past players from the commonwealth — A’dia Mathies, Makayla Epps, Maci Morris — who stayed home to play for the Cats and became stars.
“They played this over a song: It said ‘I’m coming home,’” Green said. “That really hit home to me. I was like ‘I need to represent my state.’”
The University of Kentucky held its annual women’s basketball media day Tuesday afternoon at Memorial Coliseum/Joe Craft Center.
In a season when UK aims to bounce back from a 15-17 slog in 2017-18 that ended an eight-year streak of NCAA Tournament participation, Cats Coach Matthew Mitchell vowed a return this winter to the full-court pressing style that initially launched Kentucky’s women’s basketball ascension in 2009-10.
On hand for her first media day as a Kentucky Wildcat was Green, who, ultimately, turned down scholarship offers from UCLA and the UT Lady Vols, among others, to stay home at UK.
It is often said no part of the commonwealth is more loyal to University of Kentucky sports than the Eastern Kentucky mountains.
The presence of Green at Kentucky is a confirmation of that.
After the 2015-16 season saw Mitchell and UK Hoops lose seven scholarship players and five committed recruits for varying reasons, the task at Kentucky has been trying to restore the women’s basketball program to its pre-exodus level.
Meanwhile, over the past three recruiting classes, the state of Kentucky has produced seven high school girls’ basketball players that were ranked in the top 70 players in the nation by ESPN HoopGurlz. Included were players from Elizabethtown, Louisville (two) and Ashland, from Bullitt County and Mercer County.
Harlan County’s Green is the only one of the seven who signed on to help bring Kentucky back.
This winter, Green will join with her childhood friend, ex-Bell County and current UK star Morris, to give the Eastern Kentucky mountains two prominent players on the Wildcats roster.
“Very important, a great blessing for our community,” Morris says. “It gives people someone to cheer for and shows that people from where we are can make it out of the mountains and we can produce at a high level.”
As a senior last season at Harlan County, Green averaged 26 points and 6.5 rebounds a game to lead the school to its first-ever trip to the Girls’ Sweet Sixteen. Green finished her high school career with 3,193 points and 1,102 rebounds.
UK’s Mitchell knew he was adding a player with a high skill level. The Kentucky coach says his pleasant surprise once Green got to Lexington is that her physical conditioning was also college-ready.
“My initial impression was just pretty much blown away by her preparation coming in here,” Mitchell says. “She came right in and was willing to listen and learn and accept coaching. But she didn’t back down from anybody, either, and just came right in and just, I thought, made a statement early on that ‘I’m going to be on the floor and I’m going to play.’”
At Harlan County, Green played for her mother, Debbie Green. The Harlan County head coach is an ex-UK player herself, having played her freshman season at Kentucky in 1988 as Debbie Hoskins.
“Debbie was always asking me ‘What does (Blair) need to work on?’ What does she need to prepare for?’” Morris says. “Debbie knew what it takes to play at this level. She prepared her well.”
Blair Green says that Mitchell’s stated intention to return Kentucky to the frenetic, full-court style the Wildcats employed while making three trips to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight in four years from 2010-13 is A-OK with her.
“I like to get up and down the floor,” she says. “I think the coaches have been surprised by how I run.”
This winter, the presence of Green — and Morris — on the Wildcats’ roster is ammunition for those who argue that the people of Eastern Kentucky are more loyal to UK sports teams than any other part of the commonwealth.
Says Green: “It’s really special. And it’s special to us. We’re Kentucky girls, born and raised. It means something to us to be able to play for this university.”
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory
Important upcoming dates
Nov. 2: Exhibition vs. Lincoln Memorial
Nov. 7: Season opener vs. Alabama State