Perhaps television analyst Brenda VanLengen summed up best what many fans were thinking as they watched Kentucky top Louisville on Thursday night.
“This is quite a surprise honestly,” the ESPN play-by-play announcer said just before halftime as the cameras zoomed in on two specific fans among the 14,425 at Rupp Arena.
Sitting three rows behind the home bench were juniors Linnae Harper and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, who both asked for and were granted releases by Kentucky within the last two months.
Color commentator Carolyn Peck noted correctly that Goodin-Rogers was a former high school teammate of Makayla Epps and that Harper played in high school with Janee Thompson as well.
“They’re still friends even though they’re not playing together on the same college team,” Peck said.
There was a short silence before VanLengen added: “Still quite unusual that they’re sitting three rows behind the home team bench.”
After No. 8 Kentucky’s 18-point victory over the Cardinals on Thursday night, Epps went over to hug her friends. Their departures have been especially tough on her.
“It’s hard because I view both of them as my best friends,” Epps said Wednesday when asked about her shrinking junior class. “Kyvin was with me for eight or nine years, and me and Linnae were close knit ever since we got here.
“It’s hard, but it’s not like they’re gone from the Earth. We talk daily. We talk about being there for each other regardless of where everybody ends up at. We plan on staying real close.”
After the victory, Harper tweeted and Goodin-Rogers retweeted: “I love BBN and my sisters ... They played great tonight and was so happy that I was able to see them play and cheer them on!”
Harper has not said where she plans to transfer to continue her playing career. Western Kentucky University announced Friday that Goodin-Rogers will be joining the Hilltoppers. Both are finishing out the fall semester at Kentucky. Finals week begins Monday.
Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said he wasn’t going to speculate on why the departing players were sitting behind the UK bench.
“We had a great crowd down there last night and I’m happy people came to the game and anybody that was cheering for us, I appreciate it very much,” he said Friday as he previewed unbeaten Kentucky’s next game: a trip to Middle Tennessee State on Sunday.
As for Goodin-Rogers and Harper, he said UK wishes them “nothing but the best.
“I hope they’re very successful and have great, great experiences,” Mitchell said. “It’s not working here for them, so we wish them well and hope they do great things as they move forward.”
Despite the departures, which have knocked the Cats’ number of available players this season down to nine, Kentucky players and coaches seem upbeat about the team.
“We’ve all done a real good job of staying positive about it,” Epps said. “Staying together, just believing and trusting each other. … With the group we have left, we’re just working on becoming closer on and off the court.”
After the win over the Cardinals, a reporter asked Mitchell if this current UK roster was his most athletic. Probably not, he said, before adding: “I will tell you this, they have a chance to be the most together team that we’ve ever had.
“They are working together and they are fighting for each other. When they fight with each other, they work it out and make up. It’s just a really healthy atmosphere around the team right now.”
Kentucky at Middle Tennessee State
3 p.m. (No TV)