It’s a simple memory of a grandfather that left a lasting impression on a little girl.
“I remember how when we got blisters on our hands we would say ‘we got Pap hands’ because yours always were so rough from working so hard,” Maci Morris wrote in an Instagram tribute this week.
It’s been an impossibly difficult week for the Kentucky freshman and her family, who lost her “Pap,” Victor Morris, at age 78.
A retired teacher and coach, Morris died at his home on Sunday.
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Maci Morris was at his burial on Wednesday and then returned to campus on Thursday morning to help lead the No. 10 Cats to a big win over Alabama that night.
Before Morris made her way back to Lexington, her grandmother reminded her: “When you go out there, just play for Pap. He’s watching over you and he’s proud of you.”
Morris held back tears as she recounted the conversation with Lunelle, Victor’s wife of 50-plus years.
So on Thursday night, Maci played for Pap.
After some early foul trouble, she went out in the decisive third quarter and scored 10 points. Those made shots also helped erase the angst caused by an 0-for-7 game she’d had a few days before.
Basketball is kind of there for relief. It helps me feel a little bit better.
UK freshman Maci Morris
“I can’t remember the last time I hadn’t made a shot in a game, so just hitting that shot relieved a lot of pressure off me and gave me more confidence in myself,” the 2015 Miss Basketball from Bell County said.
It relieved some pressure for Kentucky, too. One of the top offensive teams in the nation going into Southeastern Conference play, the Cats struggled to move the ball against Auburn.
That changed Thursday against Alabama.
“Her grandfather would be real proud of the way she played,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said on Thursday night at Memorial Coliseum. His team travels to Georgia (12-3, 0-2 SEC) on Sunday.
“When her shots started to go down I thought that our team kind of perked up and started to come to life.”
But it was about so much more than Kentucky getting its offensive swagger back or Morris finding her shot again.
Mitchell and UK’s players were happy to see her familiar smile return. They’d been watching the freshman struggle with the loss of her beloved Pap all week, including having to leave practice for a brief time when the wave of the loss “just hit me and I broke down.”
So as nice and timely as her baskets were, there was another reason the Kentucky bench celebrated as wildly as it did.
“She has just been really, really sad, understandably all week, and that takes a lot out of you emotionally,” Mitchell said. “So for her to perform as well as she did (Thursday) night, I was really proud of that.”
Morris was playing on Thursday in honor of her late grandfather, who from now on will “get to watch me play having the best view,” as she wrote on Instagram.
But in many ways, every drill, every practice, every game has been about working hard, developing those blisters on her hands like Pap.
Victor Morris was a retired teacher at Cumberland Elementary and Cumberland High School. The long-time coach was the first All-American in any sport at Cumberland College and is in the school’s Hall of Fame.
Victor Morris and her father, Lewis (also a coach), are two big reasons Maci has had so much success in her freshman season at Kentucky, where she has started in every game, averaging 9.5 points while shooting 43.4 percent from the field and 42.3 percent from three-point range.
They shaped her work ethic and gave her confidence.
They also gave her a love for the sport that’s helping her heal.
“Basketball is kind of there for relief,” she said. “It helps me feel a little bit better.”
No. 10 Kentucky at Georgia
When: 2 p.m.
Records: UK 12-1 (1-1 SEC); Georgia 12-3 (0-2 SEC)
Series: Georgia leads 36-15
Records: UK won 80-72 on Feb. 1, 2015, in Memorial Coliseum
Online: SEC Network Plus
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Reserves: 1-Batouly Camara, F, 6-2, Fr.; 2-Ivana Jakubcova, C, 6-6, Sr.; 24-Taylor Murray, G, 5-6, Fr.; 45-Alyssa Rice, C, 6-3, So.
Reserves: 1-Shanea Armbrister, G, 6-2, Jr.; 2-Terryuana Godwin, G, 5-4, Sr.; 4-Caliya Robinson, F, 6-3, Fr.; 10-Hannahkohl Almire, G, 5-9, Jr.; 11-Pachis Roberts, G/F, 5-11, Jr.; 12-Haley Clark, G, 5-9, So.; 23-Halle Washington, F, 6-2, Jr.; 25-Amber Skidgel, G, 6-0, Fr.