The Kentucky women’s basketball season was flickering.
Oklahoma had cut an 1l-point Kentucky lead to two late in the third period.
Far more troubling for UK Hoops backers, Makayla Epps, the Wildcats star, was on the bench holding her right arm — her shooting arm — limply by her side.
With 5:51 left in the third period, Epps had been injured while driving to the basket.
“I landed right on top of it,” Epps said later. “The pain, I ain’t ever felt such hurt.”
Once Epps left the game, the momentum shifted radically toward Oklahoma crimson.
Epps said UK Coach Matthew Mitchell kept asking his star player, “‘Can you go? Can you go?’”
Watching Oklahoma pull within 42-40, Epps finally said yes and reentered the game while holding her right arm immobile by her side.
What happened next was one of the moments that puts magic in March.
Seemingly steadied by Epps’ one-armed return, Kentucky ended the third quarter on a 10-2 run, began the fourth with an 8-3 burst and had soon booked a date in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.
Keeping alive their dream of reaching the Final Four without ever leaving Lexington, the Wildcats (25-7) beat Oklahoma 79-58 before an energetic Memorial Coliseum crowd of 3,056.
It is UK Hoops’ fifth Sweet 16 trip in the past seven years, but this time the regional semifinals and finals will be in Lexington. The No. 3 seed Cats will face No. 7 seed Washington (23-10) — who upset No. 2 Maryland — in Rupp Arena Friday night.
There was still an eternity to go. I couldn’t do that to my teammates.
Kentucky’s victory had many authors. The Cats had five players in double figures. Shaking off a 1-of-9 start, senior point guard Janee Thompson scored 13 of her team-high 16 points after halftime. UK freshman Maci Morris drained four of five three-pointers and had 12 points. Sophomore forward Alexis Jennings went for 13 points and eight rebounds.
Yet it was Epps, the focus of Oklahoma’s defense, who provided the game’s drama.
As she sat on the bench holding her arm following her injury, Epps’ teammates worried.
“She looked like she was hurting pretty bad,” said Thompson, “and I wasn’t sure if she was going to be able to come back.”
Once Oklahoma was within two, “there was still an eternity to go,” Epps said. “I couldn’t do that to my teammates.”
So Epps came back.
“It looked like she was playing with one arm,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t think it looked safe. It didn’t look good to me. I just told her, ‘If you can’t go, we can’t have you out there. I don’t want you to get hurt.’”
Yet, once Epps returned, the other Kentucky players seemed to get a lift in spirits.
Once Oklahoma was within 42-40, Jennings hit a follow. UK freshman Taylor Murray drained a 15-footer. Evelyn Akhator scored off a nice dish from Thompson, who then cashed a 10-footer.
Yet UK was still up only 50-46 when Epps, right shoulder throbbing, rose up and hit a three from the right corner.
In that moment, you knew Oklahoma stood no chance.
“Epps showed so much guts,” Mitchell said. “Really proud of Makayla.”
Now, the Kentucky women’s basketball program has ahead a week filled with opportunity.
The Kentucky men are out of the NCAA Tournament.
Louisville’s men never got in.
Louisville’s women are out of the tourney.
No other state Division I team, men or women, made the NCAA tourney.
So starting with Washington Friday, the UK women have the state spotlight. They need two victories in their hometown to make the Final Four.
If the Cats win Friday, they are likely to need to beat No. 1 seed Notre Dame (33-1) to make Kentucky’s first women’s Final Four trip. As Louisville showed when it ousted Brittney Griner and Baylor en route to the 2013 Final Four, sometimes you have to beat the unbeatable team to break through.
Will then average Wildcats basketball fan rally behind the women’s team now that UK Hoops is the only show in town?
“What I’m excited about is our team is still getting better,” Mitchell said.
The good news for Kentucky is Epps — who finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists against Oklahoma in spite of hitting only 1-of-6 field goal tries — said she expects to be ready to go Friday.
She said UK trainers diagnosed the shoulder as an AC sprain. They gave her a shot to dull the pain.
“They told me it’s going to be sore tomorrow,” she said. “But I should be fine come Friday.”
Thanks to Makayla Epps’ guts Monday night, everyone who cares about women’s basketball at UK is feeling pretty fine this morning.