On the calendar of Kentucky women’s basketball, the year 1 AEA will soon commence.
If UK is to extend its streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances to nine in this first season after stars Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator have graduated, the coming year likely needs to assume another name:
Kentucky’s leading returning scorer from last year is Taylor Murray (12.2 ppg).
Kentucky’s leading returning rebounder from last year is Taylor Murray (4.9 rpg).
Kentucky’s leading returning distributor from last year is Taylor Murray (3.9 assists a game).
Kentucky’s leading returning ball hawk from last year is — wait for it — Taylor Murray (2.0 steals a game).
“What a fantastic improvement we saw from the first of her sophomore year until the end,” Mitchell says of Murray. “That’s carried on, too.”
Murray says she does not feel individual pressure to fill the void left by the departures of Epps and Akhator.
“I’m just moving on from what I did last year and improving for this year for my team,” she said. “I’ll do whatever I need to do this year, whether that is leadership, scoring, playing defense, whatever Coach Mitchell needs me to do.”
Even last year, when UK still had current WNBA players Epps (17.7 ppg as a college senior) and Akhator (15.9 ppg, 10.8 rpg) on its roster, there were times when Murray was Kentucky’s best player.
The Odenton, Md., product scored 29 points on the road against eventual 2017 NCAA champion South Carolina. Murray had 21 points and five rebounds at archrival Louisville. She hit traditional SEC titan Tennessee with 23 points and six boards.
At 5-foot-6, Murray even produced two double-doubles — 11 points and 13 rebounds at LSU and 18 and 13 at Missouri.
Though Murray is soft-spoken away from basketball, her teammates say the guard has gotten out of her personal comfort zone this preseason and become a vocal leader for a team adding four freshmen, a junior-college transfer and a Division I transfer.
“She’s a quiet player and, naturally, just leads by example,” says UK senior center Alyssa Rice. “Now, she’s taking the next step and becoming a more vocal teacher and helping the younger players come along.”
Adds UK junior guard Maci Morris: “Tay has really become a lot more vocal this year, and I think you are really going to see that on the court.”
With the influx of new players, Mitchell is talking about returning Kentucky to the frenetic, full-court style of play that initially fueled the ascension of UK women’s basketball starting in the 2009-10 season.
A return to pressing on defense and pushing tempo on offense would make the blazing-fast Murray even more central to the Kentucky season.
“I just think we have one of the great weapons in the country to be an up-tempo, fast-paced team,” Mitchell says of Murray. “She is clearly elite-level speed. Her speed and quickness on the court, both offensively and defensively, is a real weapon we need to take advantage of.”
Murray, a 2015 McDonald’s All-American, says she relishes the thought of more chances to create in an open court.
“We’re going to bring (back) the up-tempo and keep running,” she says.
That means it’s Taylor Time.
Sacramento State at Kentucky
What: Women’s basketball season opener
Where: Memorial Coliseum
When: 7 p.m.
Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Radio: WKJK-AM 1080, W253BK-FM (WBUL) 98.5
Series: First meeting