LEXINGTON, Ky. -- If you omit Kentucky’s top three scorers -- Makayla Epps’ 24 points, Janee Thompson’s 13 points and Taylor Murray’s 11 points -- from the box score in a first-round NCAA Tournament matchup against UNC Asheville Saturday, March 19, the Wildcats still would have beaten the Bulldogs by a score of 37-31.
Instead, a crowd of 2,701 saw Epps and her UK teammates easily dominate cold-shooting UNC Asheville in a 85-31 blowout victory at Memorial Coliseum.
The 54-point victory margin is the largest ever by UK in the Big Dance. With the win, Kentucky -- one of nine SEC schools which were awarded a bid into this year’s NCAA Tournament -- improved its overall mark to 24-7. Asheville finished its season with a 26-7 record.
Kentucky, a No. 3 seed, now advances to Monday night’s showdown with No. 6 seed Oklahoma, which stopped Purdue 61-45 in another first-round game at Memorial Coliseum. Tipoff will be 6:30 p.m. ET.
UK coach Matthew Mitchell, who is now 14-6 in the NCAA Tournament, was obviously pleased with his team’s effort.
“We are really proud of our team today,” said Kentucky mentor. “I think our good play was fueled by a healthy respect for Asheville. They had a great season, and it was a really good year for them.
"Our players took four days off after the SEC Tournament. Since we got back together, they really worked hard to prepare for today. Today was not perfect. We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to have great attitudes. I thought we had great attitudes today. I thought the players hustled. We bounced back from some mistakes that we made and tried to improve in the game."
Epps, a junior All-American guard from Lebanon, Ky., pumped in a game-high 24 points along with five assists. All-SEC point guard Janee Thompson, a senior from Chicago, added 13 points and now has 997 career points. All-SEC junior Evelyn Akhator, who last year led Chipola Community College in Florida to a national championshp, had 10 points and 7 rebounds.
Pineville’s Maci Morris was perfect from the three-point line, hitting 3 of 3 downtown jumpers for nine points. The 6-0 freshman now has made 44 three-pointers on the season, just behind 54 three-pointers by Thompson.
Mitchell, who praised Morris' positive attitude, said, “Sometimes we talk about how our offense affects defense. Maci did not let poor defense affect offense today. I had a sub at the table for her to try to get her out of the game because she kept running into a screen and she made two threes in between time. Thank goodness her parents are coaches. Her dad’s a coach.
“If it had been a normal parent, they’d have been saying, ‘Why is he taking our daughter out after she made two threes?’ She struggled a little on defense. You know what I liked about Maci was we brought it to her attention a couple of times and sometimes a kid just gets kind of caught and she can’t dig herself out of it.
“I thought she bounced back in the latter part of the third and the early fourth and started making some better plays defensively. We’ll work with her. She’s a real determined player and keeps a good attitude and always accepts coaching. It was good to see her shoot the ball well today. She gave some good effort to correct some mistakes she made on the defensive end.”
Mitchell has repeatedly said throughout the season if Kentucky is going to have a very successful campaign, Morris has to work on her defense and perform at a high level on the defensive end of the floor.
And Morris has been showing remarkable improvement in defense. After a poor defensive performance against Northern Kentucky in early December, the shooting guard responded by defending the leading scorer against Louisville, Middle Tennessee State and Duke, and she did very well. She was also Kentucky's lead defender on Mississippi State star Victoria Vivians, who played 13 minutes and scored seven points on 3-of-11 shooting during UK's 83-60 victory at Starkville in mid-February.
Taking the rebounding honors was Wildcat freshman forward Batouly Camara of New York City, who snatched a game-high 11 boards.
“I just thought Batouly showed more improvement,” said Mitchell. “One thing that we really tried to emphasize in this game was to finish plays; finish defensive possessions with two hands. I thought she got some rebounds; went and got the ball and finished some plays today. She also was making some defensive mistakes that she corrected. She played a really good fourth quarter on defense and made some really good plays.”
On facing No. 24 Oklahoma (22-10) on Monday, Thompson said, “We can take a second to be happy about winning but we have to put it behind us and move forward and prepare for Oklahoma. They’re a really good team. They’ve got a good coach and a good program. So we’re just excited that we’re able to move forward in the tournament and keep playing.”
The Sooners, who were the youngest team in the NCAA Tournament last season, are coached by Sherri Coale, who has led the team to three Final Fours and nine Sweet 16 appearances. Coale, by the way, will be inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in June 2016.
Added Mitchell, “It will be a very difficult game for us, but we’re excited to be playing it. We’ll work hard to try and improve tomorrow (Sunday) and work hard to prepare for victory on Monday night. It will be a great game.”
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com 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