JAMIE H. VAUGHT: UK Hoops Future Is Bright Despite Disappointing NCAA Sweet 16 Setback Friday Night
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- On paper, Kentucky was the better team. On court, Washington was the better team.
But since being on paper doesn’t mean anything, it actually meant the No. 7 seed Huskies were the winners of a very physical Sweet Sixteen matchup Friday night, March 25 in NCAA women’s tournament, surprising the No. 3 seed Wildcats 85-72 before a nice crowd of 8,509 at Rupp Arena.
On Sunday afternoon, Washington will face No. 4 seed Stanford, which also surprised No. 1 seed Notre Dame in another Sweet Sixteen contest in the Lexington Regional.
For Kentucky, it was a disappointing end to a very good 2015-16 campaign, finishing with a 25-8 mark. The Wildcats were gunning for their fourth Elite Eight appearance since 2010 and first-ever Final Four berth. UK’s NCAA Sweet 16 appearance was school’s fifth in the last seven seasons.
“There were some physical moments in the game that we just could not get the ball in,” said UK coach Matthew Mitchell (pictured). “Then we just did not play good enough defense to stop them. They were really, really tough tonight.
“We just kept working and battling, and the ball just would not go through the hoop for us so many times.”
And Wildcat star Makayla Epps (pictured below), even with a sore shoulder, tried to carry her team by herself. But her season-high 30 points, including 3 of 7 three-pointers, weren’t enough as Washington’s trio of Talia Walton (30 points), Kelsey Plum (23 points) and Chantel Osahor (19 points and game-high 17 rebounds) dominated the floor, accounting for nearly 85 percent of team’s total points.
Epps, who also grabbed 5 rebounds and 4 assists, said she mentally was able to overcome her shoulder injury, suffered against Oklahoma in a second-round contest.
“When I got out there I didn't think about my shoulder,” said the junior guard from Lebanon, Ky. “I couldn't get that in the back of my head because that would be like a weak spot for me and a weak spot for Washington, and they'd see me stretching over my shoulder. So when the ball went up in the air, all I was worried about if I had to play the game through injury, I was going to do that for my team. I came back and faced Oklahoma for my team. Everything I did tonight was for my team. At the end of the day it's not how many numbers I put up. As long as Kentucky's winning, I'm happy about that, and tonight that just didn't happen for us.”
The game also marked the end of All-SEC performer Janee Thompson’s UK career. The senior guard from Chicago had 11 points and five assists against Washington, finishing with 1,015 career points.
Mitchell added that he was awfully pleased with the toughness displayed by Epps and Thompson during the season as they had to endure the adversity of injuries.
“They really both have had a fantastic year in so many ways,” he said. “The first place where they showed toughness was having toughness to develop their character and develop as people. It's what's made the year so enjoyable is that they had a high-character group this year that really showed up every day and did their best.
“If they didn't, they would take direction and try to do better the next day. So they've both had a great year, and we wouldn't have been playing tonight if it hadn't been for their progress as people and leaders, so proud of both of them.”
Despite the disheartening setback, Mitchell said this season has been one of the highlights of his nine-year head coaching career at Kentucky.
“I just have to tell you, this was one of the greatest experiences of my coaching career, working with this group of young women who really became a team,” he said. “High-character people who came to practice every day and improved, and where we started on October 1st to what we've finished up tonight.
“The disappointment of this one game just can not diminish how proud I am of our team. February 3rd (during the team's slump) we could have gone a lot of different directions and we chose a path to be standing in the Sweet 16. We would love to have advanced further, but it doesn't take away of how proud I am of our players.
“Really proud of Janee Thompson and the person she's developed into and the leader she's developed into for our team. Really proud of the progress Makayla Epps made as a person, so I'm proud to be up on the podium with both of them tonight. And we are disappointed, but we are proud of our season.”
The Wildcats, by the way, had two players who posted double figures against the 25-10 Huskies. Junior forward Evelyn Akhator posted her 13th double-double of the season, getting 10 points and 14 rebounds. Sophomore forward Alexis Jennings came off the bench for 12 points and 10 rebounds, giving her second double-double of the year.
Looking ahead, UK’s future is bright as nearly everyone is returning. And its five freshmen and sophomores -- including starters Maci Morris and Batouly Camara -- have gained valuable experience of playing in a very tough SEC environment as nine conference teams participated in the NCAA tournament. In addition to former first-team All-State performer and Anderson County High product Makenzie Cann, a 6-0 transfer from University of Cincinnati who sat out this season, the Cats will feature at least two more newcomers on next year's roster.
The future Wildcat freshmen so far are McDonald’s All-American 6-0 guard Lindsey Corsaro of Indianapolis and highly-regarded 6-0 athlete Chanin Scott of Charlotte, N.C. Both signed with Kentucky last fall. Corsaro picked UK over Vanderbilt, Indiana, Iowa and Iowa State while Scott selected the Wildcats over Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Indiana and East Carolina.
“They both have high character, great work ethics, are unselfish players and those kinds of tangibles are at a premium for us,” said Mitchell last fall. “Our staff cannot wait for Lindsey and Chanin to get on campus and are thrilled they have decided to be Wildcats.”
Corsaro will participate in McDonald’s All-Star game in Chicago and that matchup will televised by ESPNU on Wednesday, March 30, beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET.
Needless to say, we can hardly wait for 2016-17 campaign to begin.
How about you?
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 (Mitchell)
Photo by UK Athletics (Epps)