In the venue where her dad once quarterbacked a Kentucky team that won an NCAA championship, Makayla Epps created her own signature moment in Rupp Arena history Thursday night.
In our state’s marquee women’s regular-season college basketball game, the 5-foot-10 UK junior lit up downtown Lexington and shot down Louisville.
Epps hit 10 of 11 field goals and scored 24 points to lead the No. 8 Cats to a 72-54 victory over U of L before an announced crowd of 14,425.
“I love playing here, just because of the history and me being who I am with my dad,” said Epps, whose father, Anthony, was the starting point guard on Rick Pitino’s 1996 UK NCAA championship team. “I was having the time of my life.”
The Wildcats (8-0) have now beaten the Cardinals (3-5) five years in a row and six times in the past seven meetings.
How that streak plays, obviously, depends on where your allegiance falls on the Blue-Red divide.
Said Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell: “This is a big game, a big rivalry, and we are always happy to get a victory in this series.”
Said Louisville Coach Jeff Walz: “It sucks. I hate losing. I hate losing to any team. It’s been five in a row. I think this is the first one where we really didn’t show up at the beginning. It’s very frustrating.”
In this particular edition of UK dominance of U of L, Epps was the primary factor.
The former Marion County star helped Kentucky sprint from the gates to a 12-4 lead by draining a 15-foot jumper, a 16-foot shot off the baseline and a three-pointer.
Afterwards, she marveled at how many open looks Louisville allowed her.
“I don’t know if Louisville thinks I can’t shoot,” she said. “But if that is what they think, that’s fine. There’s probably a lot of people in the country who don’t respect my jump shot. And that’s fine, too.”
By halftime, Kentucky led 39-22 and Epps had 15 points.
Yet her most important work was yet to come.
In the third quarter, U of L pulled within 47-37 and forced a Mitchell timeout. Given that UK had rallied from double-digits down to win in the three prior Cats-Cards matchups, no one in the Kentucky huddle needed to be reminded what can happen in this series.
Out of the timeout, Mitchell put the ball — and maybe the ballgame — in Epps’ hands.
First, Epps drove the lane for a tough layup. On the ensuing UK possession, she drove, split defenders, scored, got fouled and hit the free throws.
Next trip down, Epps drained a 15-footer. After she did, Kentucky’s lead was back to 54-39 and momentum was back with the Blue and White.
“It’s always good to give her the ball and she can go execute,” Mitchell said.
Epps said that stretch showed “the trust (Mitchell) has in me, and that my teammates have in me. Being in that situation is fine — I enjoy it, actually.”
Much of the discussion about the 2015-16 Kentucky women’s basketball season has focused on the fact that four players have exited the UK program since practice started (interestingly, two of those players, Linnae Harper and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, were in Rupp sitting behind the Cats’ bench Thursday night).
Think it’s time to shift the conversation to the nine eligible players who have stayed. The team that is left is very different than the UK teams Mitchell has taken to six straight NCAA Tournaments.
It’s taller, far more offensively proficient and not nearly as dependent on full-court pressing and forcing turnovers.
After the show Makayla Epps put on in the arena where her father played his college basketball, we know something else about UK’s active players.
The one who wears No. 25 has a chance to lead the Wildcats to special places.