No. 9 Kentucky women's basketball digs in for 'root canal' against No. 2 South Carolina
The same pregame playlist runs from start to finish.
The Kentucky jersey and other items go on in the exact same order.
“Left shoe before right, stuff like that,” Makayla Epps said, running through her checklist.
It’s exactly the same pregame formula for the junior guard, who’s been trying to use the same routine that helped her have one of the top games of her career against Louisville in December.
Against the Cardinals in Rupp Arena, Epps had 24 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals. The guard made 10 of her 11 shot attempts.
Her games since Dec. 10 haven’t been atrocious by any standard — she’s scored in double figures in all of them and made 50.7 percent of her shots — but Epps hasn’t had the same pop.
“I was really jacked up, really amped up,” she said of her performance in the win over in-state rival Louisville. “I had a really good game. I’ve been trying to get my scoring mindset back. Some games I’m just more timid.”
Epps can’t predict a big game before it happens.
Before tip-off against Mississippi State last season when she nearly matched the school record for points in a game with 42, Epps told a teammate that she really didn’t feel like playing.
And nothing seemed special about the Morehead State game this season when she managed only the second triple-double in school history.
But there was something about that Louisville game. Epps made a quick early shot, then got back on defense and slammed two hands on the floor to get going.
I was overly jacked. The in-state rivalry. That’s been happening to me, even in high school, there are certain games I get overly amped for. Not by design, just what my body does. I wish it would do it every game.
Makayla Epps, on her performance this season against Louisville
“Even the casual observer could tell a difference between her body language in Louisville and her body language in Tennessee State,” UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said.
She was feeling it.
Whatever “it” is.
“I was overly jacked,” Epps described. “The in-state rivalry. That’s been happening to me, even in high school, there are certain games I get overly amped for. Not by design, just what my body does. I wish it would do it every game.”
Especially this next game when No. 9 Kentucky (13-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) takes on No. 2 South Carolina in Memorial Coliseum on Thursday night.
6Makayla Epps’ ranking among SEC scorers this season at 16.1 ppg
“We’re trying to get it turned on and keep it on,” Mitchell said of his team’s leading scorer, who is averaging 16.1 points, 5.6 assists and 5.2 rebounds.
“Keep the lights on. Who does that, Motel 6? They leave the lights on for you; that’s what we’re trying to do for Epps is to leave the lights on at all times and don’t turn it on and off.”
Trouble is the Cats and Epps are still trying to find that switch.
Mitchell and her position coaches are encouraging the junior to fight through early problems, to not revert to just an assists disher when the first few shots aren’t falling.
Or to not hang her head over turnovers. She’s had an uncharacteristic 14 in the first three conference games, compared to just 10 assists.
Or to not go back to bad defensive fundamentals when the player she’s guarding happens to score. Her head coach was so excited to see Epps shut down Georgia’s Shacobia Barbee on Sunday.
Makayla Epps is averaging 9.0 points, 1.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists in five career games against South Carolina.
Epps contained the Bulldogs star nearly the whole game, but then once Barbee scored late, Epps’ demeanor changed.
“Makayla got very upset with herself, and her reaction to that play was not where I want it to be,” Mitchell said.
Her head coach thinks Epps’ switch might be powered by having fun. After the Louisville game, he heard her say it was the most fun she’d ever had on a basketball court.
For Epps to be successful, she has to find a mix of making good decisions and having a blast doing it.
“She can’t be all tied up in a straitjacket and have a furrowed brow and be dead serious,” he said. “I’ve got to find a way to have her play hard, be responsible, do what she needs to do for her team. But she’s got to have some fun while she’s doing it.”
She’s not alone. “All of us right now need to do that,” he said of the Cats’ young team.
Kentucky’s next best chance for that kind of fun might come in the form of a victory over unbeaten, second-ranked South Carolina (15-0, 3-0) on Thursday night.
“I think I might be kind of jacked for that one,” Epps smiled. “I get kind of jacked for these. I’ve been waiting for another game like this. I need one to get me back on again.”
No. 2 South Carolina at No. 9 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: South Carolina 15-0 (3-0 SEC), Kentucky 13-1 (2-1)
Series: Kentucky leads 33-22
Last meeting: Kentucky won 67-56 on March 1, 2015, in Lexington.