Some leftovers from Kentucky women’s NCAA hoops tournament this weekend in Lexington….
---UK heralded seniors Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator were the dominating stars as they gunned in a combined 52 points – which is 71.2 percent of the total team scoring – in leading the Wildcats to a 73-70 win over a pesky Belmont squad Friday afternoon, March 17 at historic Memorial Coliseum. Akhator also had 10 rebounds, giving her the 17th double-double of the season, while Epps hit a career-high 5 three-pointers (in eight tries).
---But it was sophomore Maci Morris (pictured above) who actually saved the game for the Wildcats, who had struggled to pull away from Belmont in an exciting matchup and were staring at possible elimination from the tourney in the first round. The Bell County High School product calmly hit 7 of 8 free throws in the final 37 seconds. Morris finished the game with 15 points, including a critical three-pointer in the fourth quarter with the Wildcats holding a narrow lead, and four assists.
---UK boss Matthew Mitchell was impressed with Morris’ clutch performance at the end after a poor start on defense.
“I don’t think she worried too much about what was going on on the court and that’s a good demeanor to have in those types of situations,” said Mitchell. “Because on the last couple of free throws, my heart was racing because you watch these kids, and I’ve been coaching for over 20 years now, and I still get amazed at watching these young people go up there in those situations and knock down those free throws.
“Maci is just a real cool player and didn’t get worked up about it. She made a bunch of defensive mistakes today but what I love about her is that I can get a little frustrated with her and she just keeps going. She’s always done that since the first day she got here. The three-pointer that she didn’t think much of was a huge play in the game. That may have been the play of the game. It a great weapon to have – being able to get the ball to your 90 percent shooter (actually 88.1 free throw percentage) and she produces. You need those type of things to win games and I’m really proud of her for making them.”
Added Morris, “At the free-throw line, I just didn’t want to miss because in the past I’ve missed big free throws that could’ve helped us get a win, so I didn’t want to miss this time. After I missed one free throw, Epps told me that I would make the next two. So, I know my teammates have a lot of faith in me.”
Morris is the team’s top free throw shooter with 88.1 percent, hitting 74 of 84 from the line in 32 games this season.
---Speaking of Epps (pictured), the 5-10 guard from Marion County High School, now has 1,769 points, which is good for fifth place in UK’s all-time scoring list. She needs 29 more to climb to No. 4, passing Leslie Nichols who has 1,797 points. Former All-American Valerie Still is the school’s all-time leading scorer with 2.763 points (men and women). Ranking No. 2 and No. 3 on the scoring list are recent UK stars A’dia Mathies and Victoria Dunlap, respectively. In addition, Epps now has six career games of 30 or more points, ranking third most in program history.
---No. 4 seed Kentucky (22-10) will be facing No. 5 seed Ohio State (27-6) in what promises to be a thrilling showdown Sunday at Memorial Coliseum. The game will be nationally televised by ESPN2 at 12 noon. The Buckeyes -- who defeated Western Kentucky 70-63 in another Memorial Coliseum matchup Friday afternoon -- have one of the nation’s top players in 5-8 junior guard Kelsey Mitchell. The Cincinnati native is a two-time Big Ten player of the year and a dangerous threat from the three-point line. Against WKU, Mitchell struggled somewhat with shooting (5 of 15 field goals), but had 3 of 7 three-pointers to finish with 15 points in a team-high 39 minutes.
---OSU had nine players who saw action with at least 15 minutes against the Hilltoppers, including former Wildcat Linnae Harper, who was a member of SEC All-Freshman team in 2014. OSU coach Kevin McGuff was asked about going to his bench earlier than usual in the WKU game. “We have some experienced players on the bench. I think playing in the setting of the NCAA Tournament there's a little bit of nerves out there from everybody,” he said. “I wanted to get some people in that had played in a game like this before.”
---Going into the NCAA tournament action, Kentucky's RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) was ranked No. 14, while Ohio State placed No. 27, according to NCAA.com. Also, a look at both teams' schedule indicates the Wildcats have had a much tougher schedule this season. After Friday's games, Jeff Sagarin/CBN women's college basketball ratings has Kentucky No. 14 on strength of schedule with Ohio State ranking No. 62.
---If the Wildcats beat the Buckeyes, they still will stay home and more than likely face No. 1 seed Notre Dame in Sweet Sixteen on Friday, March 24 at Rupp Arena in the Lexington Region. The Fighting Irish, led by Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw, plays No. 9 seed Purdue Sunday night.
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 Jamie H. Vaught