JAMIE H. VAUGHT: Bell County Product Maci Morris Off To Great Start As UK Freshman
Over the years, UK has had a handful of Kentucky "Miss Basketball" players who went on to have productive careers as a Wildcat.
With All-SEC junior guard Makayla Epps -- who was 2013 Kentucky "Miss Basketball" -- on the way to a very good career at Kentucky, we may add Maci Morris (pictured) to the list, too. The 6-0 guard, who was 2015 Kentucky "Miss Basketball," is off to a great start as a freshman for Coach Matthew Mitchell's 12th-ranked Wildcats.
Entering this week's Thanksgiving holiday action, Morris has started all four games, averaging 21.8 minutes and 9.8 points. Ranked as the 10th-best shooting guard nationally by espnW last season, the Bell County High School product has hit 8 of 17 three-pointers for 47.1 percent so far this campaign.
Less than two weeks ago, Morris also had the fifth-best scoring effort in a varsity debut in UK history, gunning in 16 points in a victory against Rice.
Mitchell had a lot to say about her season-opening performance at Memorial Coliseum. The Wildcat mentor especially likes her mental toughness in overcoming mistakes.
"She is a good player," said Mitchell, who is beginning his ninth year at UK. "She is a tough kid. She has a great attitude. She’s very resilient. She does not hang her head. She got physically dominated there, she lost a little bit there. I thought the game got off to a really fluid start for her and probably lulled her into a sense that this was going to be easy.
"Rice, I thought, bowed up and started making it a really physically challenging game. She just got dominated there on some toughness plays through her youth and inexperience. I challenged her at halftime, she turned the ball over four times in the first (half) and only one time in the second half.
"She is just a tough kid mentally and it’s another example. She’ll get stronger, she has already gotten stronger since she has been here. She’ll figure out how to play. She is a really mentally tough kid and I thought she had a really good night.”
Morris had another fine performance this past Sunday in UK's 86-61 win over Pac-12's Colorado, draining 13 points with 3 of 6 downtown jumpers from the three-point arc along with three assists. She also had no turnovers in 25 minutes. A hard worker with a friendly personality, Morris has now hit a three-pointer in every game this season.
"It was a good performance, probably not my best performance," Morris said after Sunday's game. "We got the win so that’s what really matters."
Morris said she still needs to make adjustments on the floor so she can become a better player, adding, "(I need to) keep my feet moving on defense and being able to stay low in a stance on offense and defense, and just keeping up with the pace of the game."
While Morris has done very well in her UK role as a shooting guard, that doesn't mean the transition from high school to college has been easy.
“The biggest transition coming from high school to college has been the pace of the game because Kentucky is a lot faster, defensively and offensively," she said. "It is different from high school, but I also played AAU, which has a lot of Division I talent. The tempo and the pace are amazing."
Morris, who played varsity basketball at Bell County High since the seventh grade, said her goal is "to help the team win. That's my main goal because I’m just trying to do my best and improving every day on the floor to help my team win."
Even with her remarkable jump-shooting talent, Morris undoubtedly could've score more baskets for the Wildcats against Colorado. But that isn't really her style. She wants her squad to win. For instance, in late fourth quarter, she gave up a wide-open shot and got an assist by passing the ball to teammate Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, who pumped in a three-pointer.
"I would say I’m an unselfish player because I want to get all of my teammates involved because basketball is a team sport and we need everybody to be able to reach our goals," explained Morris.
Morris, 19, is a typical freshman who is adjusting to a more-demanding academic environment at a major university. Her UK classes have been challenging, according to Morris.
"Yeah, they’re hard on me but with my dad being a coach nothing really meets the standards of expectations out of me," she said. "They are hard and they get onto me.
"But when you have your dad as a coach, it makes a big difference. I’m a biology major so right now probably my biology classes are the hardest."
By the way, Morris recently had a memorable moment during the Kentucky-Tennessee football weekend. She got to meet her hero, a former Heisman Trophy winner and current SEC Network analyst Tim Tebow when he was in Lexington to cover the Cats-Vols matchup, and she also had a picture taken with him. Her favorite book, "Through My Eyes," was also written by Tebow, who is known for his strong Christian faith as well.
Her parents, Lewis and Patti Morris, are teachers at Bell County High with her father serving as the head boys' coach. Maci's brother, Victor, is a junior guard for the Bobcats.
At the end of last Sunday's brief interview with this columnist, the UK guard was asked if she had any comments that she'd like to make for her family and friends back home in southeast Kentucky.
"Good luck to Bell County. Hope you guys do well and good luck to my brother Victor. Hope you pull out on the 13th Region!" she said with a big smile. Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.
Photo by Jamie H. Vaught