UK Women's Basketball

Kentucky’s Epps: ‘It was time for me to grow up’

Kentucky guard Makayla Epps (25) celebrates a basket from the bench during the second half at Memorial Coliseum Friday, Nov. 13, 2015 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Amy Wallot
Kentucky guard Makayla Epps (25) celebrates a basket from the bench during the second half at Memorial Coliseum Friday, Nov. 13, 2015 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Amy Wallot Herald-Leader

Makayla Epps had some big decisions to make in April.

Recently cited for several alcohol-related charges in her hometown, Epps sat down with her Kentucky coach to discuss her future.

He was blunt with his team’s scoring leader, the All-Southeastern Conference First Team guard.

“You’re either going to be a good leader or you’re not going to be here anymore,” Matthew Mitchell said he told Epps. “People want to follow you. So either you’re going to do it well or you’re going to go.”

The junior from Marion County, the 2013 Miss Kentucky Basketball and Sweet Sixteen champion, said she pondered Mitchell’s ultimatum.

It didn’t take her long to realize what she wanted to do.

“I love it here,” Epps said Tuesday in her first interview since the final terms of her suspension were completed last week. “Some things needed to change.”

So Epps went to work.

On the court, off the court, in the classroom, in her personal life.

“A lot of internal stuff, stuff that needed to happen,” Epps explained. “I’m 20 (years old) and I was still in a high school mindset. I’m a junior and I’ve been here for three years. It was time for me to grow up.”

Without disclosing all of the terms of her suspension, which included missing Big Blue Madness, the exhibition game and the season opener, Epps called her time away “enjoyable.

“The process wasn’t terrible at all,” she smiled. “It really wasn’t terrible. It was enjoyable. In the past five or six months, I’ve learned a lot about myself as a person.”

Part of that process was regular meetings with her head coach to talk about things other than basketball.

“He was never trying to punish me -- I know it was viewed by people as a punishment -- he was never trying to punish me, never trying to hurt me, make me look some type of way,” Epps said. “He was just trying to help me and that’s exactly what he did.”

Part of their talks involved rethinking her priorities, so she decided to abandon social media, which she spent so much time on that she “gave myself headaches just by staring at my phone all day.”

She spent all of May in classes and working out. There were no pickup games with teammates, not team activities.

She needed to focus on herself.

And what did the past six months teach Epps, who came back with a vengeance in the Cats’ 68-64 overtime victory at No. 15 Arizona State with 20 points, five rebounds and three assists?

“I learned that change is possible,” she said not in a self-help book kind of way, but a calm, quiet way.

“I’m not the biggest person on change, whether it be the way I dress or how I go about my business,” she said. “I’ve never been big about that; my parents know that. I’m not big on change, but I know now that change is possible and that change is sometimes a good thing.”

It’s been good for Epps, who said for the first time she sees herself as a team leader. She tries to be at workouts first, tries to be on the court first, tries to support teammates in a vocal way.

That was a frustrating part of Epps’ journey for Mitchell, who said that after she nearly broke the school record for points in a game with 42 against Mississippi State in February, she didn’t even “darken the gym door” the next day.

“And that’s very negative on our team,” he said.

Now, Epps, who used to be happy just getting through sprints with her teammates, tries to finish first.

Of course, that’s tough to do these days.

“Evelyn Akhator is fast. She’s so fast,” Epps said of the junior college transfer. “It’s always like me, her and Taylor Murray.”

Epps has changed her physique dramatically, taking her body fat down to 15 percent.

“It blew my mind,” she said of her Bod Pod results after a summer of focusing on working out. “As a freshman, I had like 26, 27, (percent). Nothing to be proud of. And now I’m real proud of my body.”

Her grades improved.

So many little things improved.

“Just my attitude, my thinking process and the way I go about things,” Epps tried to explain. “I actually stop and think about things before I act. I used to have a tendency to just act and not think about what could happen after the fact.”

The junior said she regularly hears from people closest to her that they’ve seen a significant transformation.

Her head coach said it’s undeniable.

“I’m really proud of the progress she’s made as a person at this time,” he said. “She’s really grown a lot.”

Morehead State at Kentucky

7 p.m. Wednesday (SEC Network Plus)