(Editor's Note: This column was published in November 2014.)
In 40 years of UK varsity women's basketball, the Wildcats -- formerly called the Lady Kats -- have featured a share of players from mountainous southeast Kentucky such as Stacey Reed (London), Sarah Elliott (McKee) and Geri Grigsby (East McDowell), among others.
And we can add the name of Pineville's Maci Morris (pictured) to the list when the current Bell County High School star joins the Wildcats for the 2015-16 campaign.
Morris, a first-team All-State performer, recently signed with Kentucky as part of UK's sixth consecutive Top 20 recruiting class, joining Batouly Camara (New York City), Taylor Murray (Odenton, Maryland) and Morgan Rich (Scottsville, Ky.). UK's 2015 recruiting crop is ranked seventh nationally by Blue Star Basketball, and 13th by Collegiate Girls Basketball Report and espnW HoopGurlz.
Coach Matthew Mitchell, who is in his eighth year at Kentucky, likes the new recruits. “They are a really high-character group, hard workers, very talented," said Mitchell. "All can really come in and contribute to our program."
A 6-0 shooting guard, Morris is excited to be a part of the UK family. She made a surprising collegiate decision when Mitchell visited her home on a recruiting trip last year.
"I made the decision in my junior year when coach Mitchell came up to my house for a visit and nobody really knew I was going to commit, and I didn’t even know I was going to," said Morris, who picked UK over Louisville (her second choice), Marquette and Dayton. "It just kind of happened. After we had dinner, they sat down and talked to me about what position I would play, how I would contribute to the team and what they would do for me college-wise. I just knew that’s where I wanted to go, and I committed to them that day."
Even her parents were kind of surprised when she made a commitment to UK, according to Morris, who added the decision actually wasn't that easy for her.
"It was kind of tough because I was thinking of signing between them and Louisville but I just had a feeling because when he came up for the house visit that’s where I belong," Morris commented. "I’ve always been a UK fan. Everybody, my friends and family -- they are all UK fans, too. They were kind of pushing me toward that, too, but I love coach Mitchell. All the other coaches, the staff and the girls are all great. I wanted to be part of the program because it's just simply great. I just wanted to help them continue to improve and win."
Morris said Mitchell did most of the recruiting for the Wildcats, adding that "I probably talked to him more than the other coaches."
Then-Dayton assistant coach Adeniyi Amadou -- who is a native of Paris, France -- also recruited her for the Flyers and they developed a very nice rapport. Interestingly, he eventually ended up at UK this past summer to be an assistant for the women's hoops program.
"Coach Amadou was actually at Dayton when he was recruiting me," said Morris. "So Coach Amadou came to UK after I committed. I was really happy about that because coach Adamou and I were really close."
Morris is a four-star recruit who is currently rated among the nation's Top 100 players at No. 62 overall in the 2015 espnW rankings. She is also ranked as the 10th-best shooting guard in the country. As a junior last season, she averaged a team-high 22 points, 9.5 rebounds per game and shot 55.4 percent from the field in helping Bell County win the 52nd District championship and advance to the 13th Region semifinals, finishing with a 25-5 overall record.
"Maci Morris is a very, very high-level shooting guard and has a great feel for the game,” Mitchell said. “When you watch her play, you can just see her basketball IQ's very high and she just makes what I call winning plays. She just can get the ball in the basket and is not afraid to take the big shot and actually wants the ball in critical moments. So I love that about her. She is from a great, great family and they’re Wildcat fans and so it’ll be great having Maci here."
Morris comes from an athletic family. Her parents played college basketball. Her father, Lewis Morris, was at East Tennessee State University and University of the Cumberlands, and her mother, Patti Morris, at Transylvania. Both are teachers at Bell County High with her dad serving as the head coach of the boys' basketball team. And her brother, Vic, is a sophomore and plays basketball as well.
Maci says her father is the biggest influence as far as basketball is concerned.
"I have to say my dad with him just being a coach and he’s always raised me around basketball," said the likeable star. "I’ve always been in a gym since I was born and he’s just taught me everything I know."
Her mother also coached her at Right Fork School Center on the elementary level and Maci eventually played high school varsity basketball at Bell County as a seventh-grader. Over the years, the UK signee also played AAU basketball in the summer, including the last three years with Kentucky Premier, a Nike-sponsored elite girls' squad which traveled throughout the country.
Morris said she has some work to do to prepare for SEC competition next season.
"(UK) told me to work on my defense because they are very big on defense," said Morris. "(Also) I need to make sure my left hand is as strong as my right hand with ball-handling and to make sure I’m going as hard as I can during practice and games. I can start getting in better shape and be prepared for their workouts in the summer."
Her favorite basketball player?
Morris said her choices are Kevin Durant of NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder and Diana Taurasi of WNBA's Phoenix Mercury. "They are my favorites," she said. "I’m just a little startled of how competitive they are. Then Kevin Durant is just a really humble player and I respect that about him."
She recently attended UK women's 74-64 victory over Baylor in an ESPN showdown at Rupp Arena which attracted a crowd of 22,075, the second-largest in school history.
"It was a great environment for them to play at Rupp," said Morris, who will probably major in the medical field. "In the first half, they were kind of messy but in the second (half) they started hitting shots and they played really impressive."
While the Wildcats, over the years, didn't have a lot of Kentuckians on their rosters, Morris is very thankful to have found a school to play college basketball which isn't too far from her southeast Kentucky home -- a two-hour drive to Lexington.
"I’m just blessed for me to have found a place that the majority of the people (here are) big UK fans, so blessed because it was a dream of mine to play at UK," she said. "It’s just unbelievable for me."
At the end of the interview with this columnist, she was asked if she had any other comments that she would like to make.
Morris smiled and said, "Go Big Blue."
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of the growing KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. Reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.
Photo by Jamie H. Vaught