Maybe some freshmen would be nervous for their first NCAA Tournament game.
But not Kentucky’s freshmen. Big games are becoming old hat for them.
“I kind of just thought about it like a normal game,” first-year forward Batouly Camara said. “It was just nice to be at home.”
In front of the home crowd in Memorial Coliseum, the Cats’ freshmen trio each played a big role to help Kentucky easily oust UNC Asheville 85-31 in the first-round game.
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Camara had a game-high 11 boards for UK, which outrebounded the Bulldogs 50-31.
Fellow freshman Maci Morris added nine points, making all three three-pointers she attempted, and matched her season high with six rebounds.
“We kind of know we have to do our role,” Morris said. “It’s something we’ve gotten used to.”
Taylor Murray did a little more than that, getting her first career block at 5-foot-6 to go with her 11 points, five rebounds and four assists.
“I’m not really a shot blocker” Murray said, “so to make a defensive play for my teammates is really good, just builds momentum up for us.”
The trio’s poise in tournament play didn’t surprise Coach Matthew Mitchell, who has been relying on them all season to make big plays, especially with the departures of some UK veterans early in the season.
“We’d be sunk without those three freshmen,” he said. “They’ve had a fantastic year. They continue to get better.”
Mitchell said he’s hopeful that UK can get past Oklahoma in the second round to earn a few more practices for his youngest players. He expects they will have more breakthroughs in the coming days.
“They’re great kids and they’re working hard to get better.”
Epps: The three-point threat?
Pulling out her own version of Jamal Murray’s blue arrow after three-point makes certainly made them more fun for Makayla Epps.
But mostly she was pleased that her hard work was paying off. The junior guard matched her career high for made three-pointers with three against UNC Asheville.
Kentucky assistant coach Camryn Whitaker had been in Epps’ ear the past few days about her 11 percent three-point shooting percentage in the past five games.
“And that’s terrible,” said Epps, who came into the tournament a career 28.5 percent three-point shooter.
Whitaker told Epps that to be a more complete player, she had some work to do in the gym between tournaments.
“I’ve got to be able to score in the paint, in transition, mid-range and from three; I’ve got to be a threat all over the court,” said Epps, who led the Cats with 24 points. “So I put in some more work and it paid off for me.”
Kentucky made eight of its 16 three-point tries against the Bulldogs, its most makes from long range since hitting eight against Jackson State on Nov. 29.
The first-round attendance (2,701) most likely wasn’t helped by the overlap in game times with the UK men’s game against Indiana. But Mitchell said he was happy to have the fans in the stands.
The Kentucky coach grabbed the microphone after the game and encouraged the fans to “grab a few friends” and come back for Monday night’s second-round game against Oklahoma.
For the fans that opted to stick around and watch the UK-Indiana men’s game on the video board, Mitchell provided free personal pizzas. In all, he bought more than 1,000 pizzas on Saturday night, Mitchell confirmed after the game.
Familiar foe on Monday
Kentucky won’t have to go back too far in its game tape to study Oklahoma since the two teams met just last season in the Virgin Islands with the Cats pulling out a 92-88 victory over the Sooners in overtime. Epps had 29 points and 10 rebounds in that win.
Mitchell said he expected a “great game” again with the Sooners, who present some matchup problems for UK.
“Just their overall size and length is a great concern,” he said. “It will be a very difficult game for us, but we’re excited to be playing it.”
As he was building the Kentucky program, Oklahoma Coach Sherri Coale was someone he tried to emulate, Mitchell said.
“I’ve learned a lot over the years from just studying them from afar,” Mitchell said. “In the last few years, I’ve gotten to know Sherri some. She’s been always real kind to me and willing to help. I just have tremendous respect for her and her program overall.”