UK Women's Basketball

Newcomers push Kentucky women's basketball team to 72-39 victory in season opener over Rice

Kentucky forward Evelyn Akhator (13) grabs a rebound during the first half at Memorial Coliseum Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Amy Wallot
Kentucky forward Evelyn Akhator (13) grabs a rebound during the first half at Memorial Coliseum Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Amy Wallot Herald-Leader

After a double-double in her Kentucky debut, Evelyn Akhator was not as pleased as one might expect.

"I just saw her in the hallway," Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "She's disappointed. She wanted to get 20 rebounds tonight, and she only came up with 17. ... I don't think she was joking."

After the No. 17 Cats' 72-39 victory over Rice on Friday night at Memorial Coliseum, the junior college player of the year confirmed she was indeed disappointed.

"I wasn't kidding," said the Nigerian native, who led UK with 16 points and 17 rebounds in 25 minutes said. "That was my goal."

The game is broken down into four quarters now and as Akhator sees it, she should be able to grab five rebounds in each quarter, thus her 20-rebound objective.

That made true freshman Maci Morris, who also scored 16 points in her blue debut, smile widely.

"I'd be pretty pumped," Morris said of getting 17 rebounds in a game. "(Evelyn) is so athletic, and we know how great she is, and it's awesome she sets a goal like that for herself."

Her coach said Akhator's explosiveness is what sets her apart.

"When she goes up for the ball, there's not a lot of people who can get it from her," Mitchell said. "She's really strong and she's just motivated to rebound. Those people are few and far between. She's ferocious."

Morris and Akhator were two of five newcomers that played for Kentucky on Friday night against Rice. Because of defections, suspensions and injuries, the Cats had just three available players off of last year's roster.

But the newcomers didn't disappoint. The three true freshmen Morris, Taylor Murray and Batouly Camara, combined to score 32 points in the opener, with Murray pitching in 12 points and four steals.

"We weren't full strength and played with a lot of inexperienced players and I was very, very proud to come out with a victory and so many good things in the game and so many opportunities to get better," said Mitchell, whose team shot 50 percent from the field and outrebounded the Owls 41-29.

Kentucky also got help from sophomore Alexis Jennings, who had 10 points and nine rebounds and junior Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, who added nine points, including three three-pointers.

Kentucky held the Owls without a field goal the entire first quarter and grabbed a 19-2 lead behind eight straight points from Morris, the 2015 Miss Kentucky Basketball.

"She's a good player," Mitchell said. "She's a tough, tough kid. She has a great attitude, she's very resilient. She just does not hang her head."

At halftime, when UK led 34-16, Mitchell challenged Morris to get tougher after she coughed up the ball four times against a physical Rice defense. She had just one miscue the rest of the way.

The Owls (0-1) were paced by Shani Rainey's 12 points and five rebounds. Wendy Knight added eight points.

The road gets much tougher for Kentucky right away with the Cats going on the road to face No. 15 Arizona State on Sunday. The Sun Devils return four starters from a team that went 29-6 last season and advanced to the NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen.

Epps to return soon

If everything goes as expected the next two days, Kentucky likely will have star guard Makayla Epps back for the game against Arizona State.

The First Team All-Southeastern Conference player missed the opener while finishing out the terms of her suspension for an off-season incident. She also was healing up from a concussion she sustained in practice last week.

Epps' suspension is complete, Mitchell confirmed on Friday. "I'm really proud of the progress she's made as a person at this time," he said. "She's really grown a lot and she'll have a great opportunity to have a great junior season."

Epps, who was vocal on the UK bench and dancing a little in warmups, is still working her way through the concussion protocol, still needing to make it through a contact practice on Saturday morning to be cleared to play, but Mitchell said he was optimistic.

"We're hopeful she'll feel good tomorrow and be available Sunday," he said of the guard who led UK in scoring last season at 14.9 points a game. "She'll be a big boost for us."

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