When you reflect about the current version of UK women’s basketball team, you’d think about its two senior stars -- 5-10 guard Makayla Epps and 6-3 forward Evelyn Akhator (pictured, No. 13).
And these two Sporting News pre-season All-Americans won’t be around much longer so enjoy while you can during the post-season tournament action.
The duo of Epps and Akhator, along with its strong supporting cast like Taylor Murray, Maci Morris, Alyssa Rice and Makenzie Cann, have guided the team to a remarkable 20-9 mark, including 11-5 in SEC, against one of the nation’s toughest schedules, going into this week’s conference tournament in Greenville, S.C. The Wildcats, so far, have beaten No. 3 Mississippi State, and other Top 25 clubs Oklahoma, Miami (Florida), and Missouri.
Without its two scholarship seniors, Kentucky would’ve been in a bad shape this season.
Epps, a former Miss Kentucky Basketball from Marion County High School, is leading the team in scoring with an average of 16.9 points – No. 7 in SEC -- along a club-high 108 assists. Akhator, a Nigeria native who transferred to UK after two years at Chipola Community College in Florida where she was named the national junior college player of the year, is averaging 15.3 points and tops the squad with an average of 10.5 rebounds, the third-best in the league.
It was announced that both were also named to the first team All-SEC by the league coaches Tuesday.
It doesn’t hurt that Epps (pictured, No. 25 with athletics director Mitch Barnhart), who was recently named to the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 list for nation’s most outstanding player, is a popular figure in Kentucky with an electrifying personality.
“She just connects so well with people,” said UK coach Matthew Mitchell in last week’s press conference. “She has a beautiful spirit about her. She has a great heart for people. She, I think, takes that extra few seconds maybe to connect with a fan that might be the only interaction they ever have but she takes the time to connect with people because she cares and she has a caring heart.”
The Wildcat fans also like Epps’ connection to the past when her dad, Anthony Epps, was a starting point guard at Kentucky, helping the Cats capture the 1996 national championship. And you more than likely have seen an old picture of her father holding her – a toddler -- when the elder Epps was honored on Senior Day at Rupp Arena. She even wore a Wildcat cheerleading uniform that day, too.
“I think her lineage is important,” Mitchell added. “I think her dad having success here on a really important team in our men’s basketball history is just a big, big part of the fabric of our Commonwealth. So, his success, and then you have a daughter that comes along and signs with Kentucky and goes to Kentucky, I think that adds to that and then the success our program’s had. She’s had some incredible moments here as a player.
“But I don’t think any of that would matter if she weren’t the person that she is and have the heart that she has for people. I think that’s the most important part of why people connect with her.”
Like Epps, Mitchell is thankful that Akhator has become a central part of his life and the UK program.
“It is a remarkable blessing in my life to have her come to Kentucky and be around her for this length of time,” said Mitchell. “I have only really known her for three years. I recruited her for one year and coached her for two years. I do feel like she is someone that I have been connected to for a long time and will remain connected to. We talk about it all that time that we are family at this point.
“She is given as much as anyone could ever give in the amount of time that she has been here because she has given her all. She has given everything that she can give. I don’t know that we will ever sign anyone that is higher character as her. She is really high character and we have had some great people come through here.
“But, like Makayla, who is shaped through adversity that she experienced here, Evelyn experienced adversity before she got here that shaped her and strengthen her. She lost her mother at an age that was far too young. It is never a good time to lose your mother. But she came from a different country and a different culture and has made the most of her opportunity.
“She is someone that I love very much, just like Makayla, very deep. I have a family connection and love for those kids like they are blood relatives. I just really appreciate both of them. We laugh all the time because we don’t know how a young woman from Lagos, Nigeria and an old guy from Louisville (in Mississippi) have a connection, but we do and God is important to both of us. We talk about those things and share that, and I do think that is something that connects us and something that I love about her.”
UK sophomore standout Maci Morris, a former Miss Kentucky Basketball in 2015, said following Epps’ hoops career has been fun to watch.
“We actually played in the same AAU program, so I got to see her play in the summer and you just love watching Makayla play,” she said. “I loved watching Makayla play when I was in high school. Obviously, you heard all about her because her dad played here and then her coming up and coming to Kentucky. So, yes, I loved Makayla’s game. She’s taught me so much. It’s just been a joy playing with her.”
When the current campaign is over, Epps and Akhator will see their UK careers end. No more college basketball for them. The fans certainly will miss watching the entertaining duo at Memorial Coliseum.
However, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them wearing a WNBA jersey this summer. Epps and Akhator have been listed in the 2017 WNBA mock drafts. In fact, CBSSports.com’s Howard Megdal had Akhator at No. 11 overall in the mock draft last week.
Fortunately, if things work out, it appears that we still can follow their roundball careers in WNBA. That would be good news for the rabid Big Blue Nation.
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UK coach Matthew Mitchell, now in his 10th season at the Wildcat helm, also commented his current squad has a chance to be something really special despite massive personnel losses last year.
Like last season when the Wildcats played three NCAA tournament games in Lexington, beating UNC Asheville and Oklahoma at Memorial Coliseum before dropping to Washington in Sweet Sixteen at Rupp Arena, UK could be traveling through the same short path again this time to reach the Final Four in Dallas.
There is a decent chance Kentucky will return to the friendly confines of the Memorial Coliseum if it finishes in the top 16. According to the NCAA Selection Committee’s final top 16 ranking, which was released on Feb. 20, UK would be placed at No. 15 overall. So, if the Big Dance began today, Kentucky would be a No. 4 seed and play at home in the first and second rounds. (Unlike the men’s tournament, the top 16 seeds will host the first- and second-round NCAA women’s tourney games.)
And that was before UK’s 78-75 overtime win over No. 3 Mississippi State on Feb. 23.
After a road loss at No. 7 South Carolina 95-87 last Sunday, Kentucky is No. 14, according to NCAA’s Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). Also, the Wildcats have the No. 2 strength of schedule in the country.
The Selection Monday is March 13 when the committee releases the bracket of NCAA’s women tournament on ESPN (7 p.m. ET)
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.
Photos by UK Athletics