UK Women's Basketball

One season after freshman 'fog,' UK's Epps starting to shine

Kentucky Wildcats guard Makayla Epps (25) celebrated the win as Kentucky defeated  Baylor 74-64 on Monday November 17, 2014  in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats guard Makayla Epps (25) celebrated the win as Kentucky defeated Baylor 74-64 on Monday November 17, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

There were times in the recruiting process when Matthew Mitchell wasn't sure what he would get from Makayla Epps.

He saw game after game of the Marion County point guard and frequently walked away perplexed.

"When I got so down on her in high school, she was limping around," Mitchell recalled from the recruiting process.

"She was trying to be cool, but she had a torn meniscus. But she played it off, wouldn't tell anybody and she was grabbing her shorts and I just thought she was lazy."

Once Epps signed at Kentucky, she got the knee fixed and became a new player. Then she spent the better part of her freshman season in a self-described "fog" after being in an accident where the car she was in flipped seven times on the Bluegrass Parkway.

Couple those difficulties with the growing pains most freshmen go through, and it's been an interesting year for the former Kentucky Miss Basketball.

"It was rocky at times," was how Epps described her freshman season at Kentucky, where she never got fully into shape and struggled to keep up with the pace of play.

"I couldn't stay out there with my team, I could go like two to three trips and I was like, 'Coach, I'm gassed. I need a sub,' said Epps, who averaged just 11.5 minutes a game last season compared to 26 minutes a game this season. "So that was really frustrating, too.

"Just being a freshman was really hard, I can't lie."

The concept of a sophomore slump most likely will be a sophomore jump for Epps, who has starred in the Cats' two games this season off the bench.

The 5-foot-10 sophomore, who only scored in double digits five times last season, is averaging 14 points to go with her six rebounds, 2.5 assists and two steals.

Epps can play nearly every position on the floor and has in the No. 13 Cats' first two games, including their upset win over eighth-ranked Baylor at Rupp Arena on Monday night. Her dad, former UK point guard Anthony Epps, watched from a few rows away.

"She's a very versatile player and was impactful in all areas," Mitchell said of Epps' big night. "She's only scratching the surface of what she can become."

Kentucky (2-0) will face Morehead State (2-0) on Wednesday morning at Memorial Coliseum. It is one of four straight road games to start the season for the Eagles, who are coached by former Lexington Catholic and Transylvania coach Greg Todd.

Against the Bears, Epps had 12 points and a career-best eight rebounds in 28 minutes, including seven points and six rebounds coming in the second half when UK surged ahead.

When Mitchell watches Epps play now, he doesn't question her energy or her effort or her passion.

It was all on display Monday night, he said.

"She loves Kentucky; she loves playing here," Mitchell said. "It means a lot to her. That's why I love having Kentucky kids on the team. It's no disrespect to the other kids; they love it, too.

"But she got down there and checked the floor a couple times, and it's just a little bit different for her."

Epps, who is hitting 50 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three-point range, admitted that playing at Rupp is her favorite game of the season, except the ones in March.

"To look up a couple of times and see my dad, that meant a lot to me," Makayla said of Anthony, who helped coach her in high school.

The younger Epps said she's in the best shape of her life, dropping 15 pounds in the offseason. She changed her body and improved her speed so dramatically that Mitchell didn't hesitate in the preseason when asked who his most improved player was.

"Epps. Unbelievable," he replied. "You won't recognize her. You've never seen her like this. Unbelievable health. Unbelievable shape."

Mitchell predicted that Kentucky's offense might struggle because of the strong focus put back on defense and fundamentals this offseason, but the coach said with players like Epps on the floor, he wasn't so worried.

"Just give her the ball and get out of the way and probably some good things are going to happen."

Parking, game day info

Kentucky will offer a shuttle for fans attending the women's basketball game against Morehead State on Wednesday at 11 a.m. at Memorial Coliseum.

A release from the school said fans are encouraged to park at the UK Soccer and Softball Complex or use the limited space available at the parking structure on South Limestone.

A shuttle will be available from both locations beginning at 9:30 a.m. and running until 30 minutes into the game. The shuttle will resume again 11/2 hours after tipoff.

Fans who come from the parking structure on Limestone should bring their white parking stub and exchange it for a pink slip at any Memorial Coliseum entrance to park free of charge.

The game against Morehead is part of UK's annual "Class of 2021 Day," which brings sixth graders from various schools in Fayette County to visit UK campus. The visiting students will be seated on the East side of the coliseum, while others are asked to sit on the West side, behind the team benches. All seating for this game is general admission.