It wasn't pretty, but Epps could only think of one way to react.
"I looked up at the scoreboard once and I was like, 'We're down 20 and it can't get (any) worse so just go,' Epps said. " 'Fight to the finish.' "
When Epps came in with 15:09 left, UK trailed 53-32. Southeastern Conference-leading South Carolina had been dominant, turning an eight-point halftime lead into a comfortable margin with a 15-4 run. With no reason for the self-doubt natural for a freshman, Epps threw caution to the win and went on the attack.
Within a minute, she hit a jumper. Later, she scored six straight points as UK showed signs of life and cut the South Carolina lead to 11 with 9:31 left. The Gamecocks, however, were too much on this night.
"We ran into a really, really tough opponent that's extremely talented, plays real hard," Matthew Mitchell said. "They were tough defensively, tough offensively, really, really active on the boards and we got whipped tonight."
Riding an astounding 44-19 rebounding edge, the No. 4/6 Gamecocks (23-2, 11-1 SEC) took down No. 15/15 Kentucky (19-6, 7-5 SEC), 81-58. Aleighsa Welch had a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds and South Carolina shot 52.6 percent for the game and 60 percent in the second half to erase any thoughts of a comeback.
Epps, however, wouldn't stop.
"Coach Mitchell, four minutes to go at the last media timeout, he was like, 'Just finish the game. Keep playing hard, keep playing hard,' " Epps said. "And that's what I was trying to do.' "
Epps finished with a career-high 16 points, 14 of which came after halftime. She played point guard for much of her 15 second-half minutes, coping more effectively with South Carolina's physical defense than any of her teammates.
On a night that saw UK's two-game win streak end and a bid at a second straight win over a top-10 team come up short, that was at least one reason to be encouraged.
"She was able to use her size and strength to make some plays in transition that were available to us and I thought played with some good tempo offensively," Mitchell said. "She's a talented player and she'll just keep getting better, but she had a really good night."
Now, Epps and the Wildcats go back to work.
"You have to let go of this result and try to find out ways to address meaningful things that'll actually impact the game," Mitchell said. "So the score of this game will not impact Sunday's game unless we come in tomorrow down and defeated and discouraged."
Sunday's game won't be an easy one, as UK travels to Texas A&M to face the only team that's taken down South Carolina in SEC play. The good news is the Cats have some experience responding to losses.
"We've been here before," Epps said. "It's not like it's our first loss or (anything) like that. So we've been in this position before and we know what we're capable of. All the players, all the coaches, we know what we're capable of. So, like I said, we got Sunday to look forward to. We got Texas A&M and nobody says we can't go out there and beat them. So we're looking for a bounce back."
Similarly, Dawn Staley could change the approach of her Gamecock team to catch Kentucky off guard in a rematch in Memorial Coliseum.
The two coaches could, but don't hold your breath waiting for it.
"They won't see a whole lot different from us and I doubt we see a whole lot different from them," Mitchell said. "We just need to play better than we did over there."
If the last week is any indication, it seems reasonable to expect No. 15/15 UK (19-6, 7-5 Southeastern Conference) will do just that on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET.
The Wildcats are fresh off their first 2-0 week in SEC play, a week that included an upset of Tennessee on Sunday. The win over the Lady Volunteers -- UK's first in Knoxville, Tenn., since 1985 -- proved that Mitchell had good reason for keeping the faith that his team is capable of making noise the rest of the season.
He spent last week reminding the Cats of what they accomplished in starting nonconference play 11-0, showing tape of UK's memorable victories over top-10 opponents Louisville and Baylor. With another such win now in the much more recent past, that confidence Mitchell worked to build goes to another level.
"It's just like a boost," junior guard Bria Goss said. "We knew we could do it and we've shown people that we can do it and now we just gotta go out there and do it."
No. 4 South Carolina (23-2, 11-1 SEC) won't make that easy.
The Gamecocks have reeled off seven straight wins in SEC play behind a dominant defense that allows just 53.9 points per game. South Carolina's only loss in conference came on the road against top-25 Texas A&M by just two points, and in overtime to boot.
"We have great battles and they certainly have brought out the best in us over the years and I think it's developed into a good rivalry," Mitchell said.
UK and South Carolina have split their last six matchups with each one decided by single digits. That means Thursday will be a challenge, but one the Cats think they need.
"I think it's really good that we face somebody as good as South Carolina at a time like this to really see where we are," Goss said.
The first time around, UK wasn't ready to cope with South Carolina's physical defense for 40 minutes. In that game, the Cats charged out to an early lead before going ice cold from the field. They shot a then-season-low 31.5 percent, putting them in a 22-point hole that a late rally could not overcome.
"I think it was because of us, because of our shot selection," Goss said. "But we're a whole different team from when we played them a little (more) than a month ago, so I'm really excited."
With DeNesha Stallworth back at full strength, UK looks different from a personnel perspective though their approach remains the same. The loss at South Carolina was the senior forward's second game back following a knee injury that sidelined her for a month. With 11 points and four rebounds in 20 minutes, she played well given the circumstances at South Carolina, but Stallworth is at another level now.
"She's a completely different player now, playing with a lot of confidence, playing with a lot of toughness," Goss said.
Over her last three games, Stallworth is averaging 16.7 points and 11 rebounds.
Stallworth's emergence has corresponded with that of point guard Jennifer O'Neill, the reigning SEC Player of the Week. After the junior scored just 12 points in 32 combined minutes against Georgia and LSU, O'Neill has scored 20 or more points in three consecutive outings.
"It's real simple with Jennifer, we want her to attack off the ball screens and look to score there and we want her down and ready when she doesn't have the ball, prepared to shoot," Mitchell said.
O'Neill didn't hesitate to shoot the first time around against South Carolina, but the shots certainly didn't fall. She was just 1 for 13 on Jan. 9, scoring five points. With the way O'Neill has played of late, Goss isn't doesn't see a repeat performance coming.
"I'm not expecting 30 points, 40 points, but, you know, for her she's playing with a lot confidence and she has every right to," Goss said. "She should feel like every shot's going in because I know every time she shoots it I know that it's going in."
It's no coincidence that Stallworth and O'Neill have played their best basketball since early in the season as the Cats have done the same. It's also no coincidence that the reasons are the same.
"I think just our mindset has changed," Goss said. "We're just more aggressive, we're confident, we're believing in ourselves, we're playing as a team and I think that's really key."
Aggressiveness and confidence will be even more important considering South Carolina's strength inside. The Gamecocks blocked 14 shots in the first matchup and rank third nationally with 7.1 blocks per game.
"I don't think we did a good job playing through that last time," Goss said. "But shot-blocking's part of the game and we just gotta go out there, you know, get your shot blocked, we'll go get another board or go get a defensive stop or make the stop or something like that."
UK coped well with Tennessee's length on Sunday and will look to do the same against Elem Ibiam and Co. If they do, the Cats could be celebrating their second top-10 win in five days.
"That'd be pretty sweet," Goss said.
Ole Miss had made a furious run to cut a UK lead that was once as large as 22 points, making it 76-70 with less than two minutes to go on a banked Anthony Perez 3-pointer.
The Wildcats, at that point, hadn't made a field goal in nearly eight minutes. With the shot clock running down, one of UK's assistants shouted for John Calipari to use a timeout and set up a play. For a moment, Coach Cal was going to follow the advice.
Until he saw the ball go to Julius Randle and his concern melted away.
"It was six seconds (left on the shot clock) and I looked up and he caught the ball and my mind quickly said, 'He's either getting fouled or he'll make this,' " Calipari said. "And that's how much confidence I have (in him)."
Randle delivered on his coach's confidence. He drilled a shot in the paint to trigger a game-ending 8-0 run as No. 18/16 UK (20-6, 10-3 Southeastern Conference) closed out an 84-70 victory at Ole Miss (16-10, 7-6 SEC).
It wasn't a designed play that resulted in the game-changing basket, rather an example of Randle trying to put what UK has been working on in practice into action.
"It's just what Coach has been talking about the past couple of days: chemistry," Randle said. "I just wanted to get to the available spot and we just had to make basketball plays. Just get to the open spot and see if I can get in and try to make a play for my team or myself."
Randle did plenty of that on Tuesday night. He had his 14th double-double by halftime en route to a final line of 25 points and 13 rebounds -- both game highs.
With Randle setting the tone, UK was downright dominant in the first half in Tad Smith Coliseum. The Wildcats raced out to a 42-25 halftime lead, shooting 58.6 percent from the field with well-executed fast breaks and half-court sets. On defense, UK handcuffed the Rebels to the tune of 0.735 points per possession.
Fans still unable to shake the expectations that have followed the Cats all season likely wondered whether they had found a new, permanent gear. Much as they enjoyed the first half, the players know that's not realistic.
"That's probably how every team wants to play every game and it's not gonna happen," said Aaron Harrison, who had 17 points. "You always have bad games and you just don't have the energy there and stuff like that. So that's what we're working on: just having energy. I think that whole big run just came from energy and enthusiasm."
At halftime, Coach Cal warned his team to expect a counter-punch.
"I was really proud of them that first half," Calipari said. "And again, I said at halftime, 'They're going to make a run. You do know that, right? Now let's see how we respond to it and let's make our own run.' "
After a Willie Cauley-Stein layup with 9:10 left, UK took its largest lead at 62-40. From there, the Rebels pieced together a 30-14 spurt to make things interesting. Perez scored 15 of his 21 points during the run, Jarvis Summers notched seven of his team-high 22 and Marshall Henderson had a pair of 3s to ignite the home crowd.
If not for their second-best free-throw shooting effort of the season, the Cats may not have survived.
They hit 27-of-30 (90 percent) at the line for the game, including 19 in a row to close the game to account for all but two of their final 21 points. Randle hit 10 of them -- and 13-of-14 for the game -- Aaron Harrison four, Cauley-Stein three and Andrew Harrison two.
"We knew we had to make free throws because, I mean, we weren't really making a lot of buckets and they started to make their shots," Aaron Harrison said. "We just knew that in basketball you have to make free throws when other things aren't going. We just took that opportunity to just get focused at the line."
At morning shootaround before the game, UK closed the session with some work at the line. Seconds in, watching a couple free throws miss badly, Coach Cal blew his whistle. He told the Cats to focus on "self-talk" as they step to the stripe and to exchange the often self-fulfilling negative thoughts for belief that the shots will fall.
At least for one night, it worked.
"You just gotta know that you're going to go up there and knock it down," Randle said. "We all had that focus. We all knew that when we got to the free-throw line we wanted to shoot because we knew we would make it. That showed up today."
More often by the day, players' words -- and more importantly, their play -- reflect the lessons Calipari has been hammering home all season.
That's perhaps truest when it comes to the way the Cats measure success.
"We all have goals individually, but the biggest thing we know is if we play together, play for each other, play as a team, just keep building our confidence, energy, doing what Coach is asking us to do our individual goals will be taken care of," Randle said. "Winning's the most important thing for all of us."
UK's star forward had four 20-point, 10-rebound performances in his first five college outings, but the one he had against the Rebels was just his second in nearly two months. Opponents have made Randle priority No. 1 in their defensive game plans since his scorching start to 2013-14 and he has had to adjust his approach, both mental and physical.
That's why Randle hardly pays attention to the box score these days.
"I think what Coach is asking me to do is rebound, run the floor, play really hard, defend every position and just bring energy, being a great teammate," Randle said. "And the rest will take care of itself. If I score or I don't, it doesn't really matter. If I do those things, I think I can put my team in position to win."