By Jamie H. Vaught
After Kentucky women dropped to Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Lexington, finishing its remarkable campaign with a 22-11 mark after last year’s turmoil involving several player departures, it sure was a very emotional time for two Wildcat senior stars Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator.
Even some reporters at last Sunday’s postgame press conference, including yours truly, were almost teary-eyed when they spoke. And it was tough to see both All-SEC performers end their successful collegiate careers on their own home floor at Memorial Coliseum with a loss.
In the 82-68 setback to the Buckeyes, the duo of Epps and Akhator nearly carried the Wildcats but their solid effort wasn’t enough. Epps -- who was the only player who saw action in 40 minutes – led the squad in scoring with 21 points, while Akhator grabbed a career-high 23 rebounds along with 14 points and four blocks.
Akhator, who grew up in Nigeria, was asked about her two-year stay at Kentucky.
“I only spent two years here and it’s been the best two years of my life,” she said. “I’m really close to the coaches but Coach (Matthew) Mitchell treated me like a daughter and I was able to open up to him. I don’t open up, I usually keep things to myself. He was able to get through to me which made much more comfortable with him and my teammates. I became so close to my teammates and I really opened up to them.
“Every time I was down they always knew something was wrong with me and they would try to talk to me about it and just get me to let it go. It has been a huge impact in my life and they became family to me. My two years here has been like four years not just in Kentucky but it’s like I have been here forever. Honestly, Kentucky is like my home away from home and I will never forget that.”
Akhator completed her career with 31 career double-doubles, tying for No. 3 on the all-time program list.
A native of Lebanon, Ky., Epps discussed her Wildcat career and what it meant to her. She was also thankful what sophomore standout Maci Morris of Pineville, Ky., had to say.
“I don’t even know if I can put it into words,” said Epps. “First off, I want to thank Coach Mitchell for giving me the opportunity to come here on an athletic scholarship. Those are not given. You have to earn them. A lot of credit to him, he has done a great job here at the University of Kentucky.
“My four years here were not easy. It was not just a joy ride the whole time I was here. I had some highs and lows, moments where I didn’t know if I was coming or going. He would take time out of his life, busy days, take time away from his family to sit up in his office and talk with me one-on-one, getting to know me and that is the type of coaches you need, the type who really get to know their players
“Then my teammates especially this year, they made my senior year the best year here. It’s not the team I started out with but it’s the team I finished with. Like Coach Mitchell said, even though we didn’t get the win today, we’re a team. We made Memorial Coliseum rock today and I’ll never forget the players in the locker room. Maci (Morris) came up to me a minute ago and hugged me telling me that I’m the best teammate she ever had and one of the best people she’s ever been around. It really means a lot to me. It’s a lot more than just basketball for me. Basketball isn’t forever for me but just to know that I have made a huge impact on so many people’s lives during my four years here means the world to me.”
Epps finished her UK tenure with 1,790 total points, ranking No. 5 in school history.
Mitchell (pictured) said he really appreciates the seniors for their outstanding accomplishments at Kentucky.
“Well, I've said this before. I'm so grateful for those two because they've taught me as much of anything that I've taught them,” said the UK mentor. “…. What matters is the experience they had that helped them develop as people. I'm grateful for the hard work they put in. You couldn't have two better seniors. They're two real special people that did a lot for us, so we're grateful.”
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Looking ahead, after the loss of two key seniors (plus another senior, Jessica Hardin, who was a late addition to the roster last summer), Kentucky will have three starters – senior-to-be Alyssa Rice and junior-to-be Maci Morris and Taylor Murray – back along with key contributors senior-to-be Makenzie Cann and sophomore-to-be Jaida Roper.
Also don’t forget Ogechi Anyagaligbo, who sat out this past season due to NCAA transfer rules. She is expected to play a key role for the Wildcats in 2017-18. A 6-1 forward from Miami, Anyagaligbo played her freshman year at Stony Brook where she was named the America East Conference Rookie of the Year, averaging 10.1 points and 9.0 rebounds per game, while starting 31 of team’s 32 games.
The Wildcats also will get some help from the incoming rookie standouts next fall. After the early signing period last November, UK’s recruiting class was ranked No. 17 by All-Star Girls Report (ASGR). According to ASGR and PropectsNation.com, the Cats signed four Top 100 recruits in addition to a junior college standout who was ranked No. 56 by ASGR.
The new highly-ranked signees include 6-3 center Dorie Harrison (Nashville, Tenn.), forward Keke McKinney (Knoxville, Tenn.), juco guard Amanda Paschal (Brooklyn, N.Y.), guard Kameron Roach (Hopkins, S.C.) and forward Tatyana Wyatt (Columbus, Ga.).
Said ASGR analyst Bret McCormick in late November, “Kentucky went through a rough patch, but their new staff brought in a great group that really fits their system. These kids are long and athletic with high motors. Kentucky is going to be young, but in a few years they should be strong.”
UK, by the way, isn’t the only SEC school which did very well in recruiting. Eight other SEC teams were also ranked in the Top 21 in ASGR. Overall, the Wildcats ranked No. 6 in the SEC in recruiting. The Lady Vols, who finished the year with a disappointing 20-12 mark after losing to Louisville in the second round of the NCAA tourney earlier this week, have the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class. The other recruiting rankings that I have seen placed UT at No. 1.
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When you think of UK basketball, you would say John Calipari.
When you think of Connecticut basketball, you would say Gene Auriemma (pictured).
They are members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and both coaches, interestingly, grew up in Italian households. And their teams have advanced to Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament this week.
They are similar in many ways. They know how to win and they have talked about having positive body language among their players.
Over the years, Calipari has mentioned body language. In his 2014 book, titled “Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out,” the Kentucky coach included a tidbit about Alex Poythress. Calipari didn’t like the player’s body language, telling him to work hard and improve his non-verbal form of communication.
After reading about Auriemma’s 2016 comments on the same topic earlier this week, my admiration for the legendary UConn women’s coach grew leaps and bounds. Auriemma, whose program has won 11 national championships, discussed body language during the NCAA Final Four last season after reporters wondered about his coaching philosophy and how the entire team has managed to show enthusiasm even though some don’t get to play very much.
“I don't want to sound like an old guy who's been coaching a long time. So it's going to come across like that, I'm sure,” said Auriemma. “But recruiting enthusiastic kids is harder than it's ever been.
“Because every kid watches TV and they watch the NBA or they watch Major League Baseball or whatever sport they watch, WNBA, doesn't matter, and what they see is people just being really cool. So they think that's how they're going to act. And they haven't even figured out which foot to use as a pivot foot and they're going to act like they're really good players. You see it all the time. See it at every AAU tournament, every high school game. “So recruiting kids that are really upbeat and loving life, and love the game and have this tremendous appreciation for when their teammates do something well, that's hard. It's really hard.”
Auriemma and his staff have worked extra hard to get the team to develop positive body language. He once benched All-American Breanna Stewart, who later became WNBA’s top draft pick overall in 2016, for most of the game against Memphis in 2015 for poor body language. (Stewart later became the only three-time Associated Press Player of the Year in NCAA history.)
“On our team, we put a huge premium on body language,” he said. “And if your body language is bad, you will never get in the game. Ever. I don't care how good you are. If somebody says, ‘Well, you just benched Stewy for 35 minutes in the Memphis game a couple of years ago. Yeah, I did. That was to motivate her for the South Carolina game the following Monday? No, it wasn't.’ Stewy was acting like a 12-year-old. So I put her on the bench and said, ‘Sit there.’ “It doesn't matter on our team. The other coaches might say you can do that because you've got three other All-Americans. I get that, I understand that. But I'd rather lose than watch kids play the way some kids play. I'd rather lose. And they're allowed to get away with just whatever and they're always thinking about themselves. Me, me, me, me. I didn't score, so why should I be happy? I'm not getting enough minutes, why should I be happy? That's the world we live in today, unfortunately. And kids check the scoreboard sometimes because they're going to get yelled at by their parents if they don't score enough points. Don't get me started. “So when I look at my team, they know this. When I watch game film, I'm checking what's going on on the bench. If somebody is asleep over there, if somebody doesn't care, if somebody's not engaged in the game, they will never get in the game. Ever. And they know that. They know I'm not kidding.”
During recruiting, the coach also pointed out he’s fortunate that most of the players will discuss national championships, instead of asking about their playing time.
I really like Coach Auriemma’s coaching philosophy (as well as Calipari’s) when dealing with body language. 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 (Matthew Mitchell)
Photo by Stephen Slade, UConn Athletics (Geno Auriemma)