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UK Hoops' NEXT big stars

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NEXT. That is the slogan for this year's 2013-14 University of Kentucky women's basketball program. The word next can take on many meanings, but head coach Matthew Mitchell is looking for his next big stars.

The Wildcats return four of the five starters from last season's Elite Eight squad and 10 letterwinners overall, including All-Southeastern Conference selections DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker and junior
UK freshmen Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, Linnae Harper and Makayla Epps. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK freshmen Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, Linnae Harper and Makayla Epps. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
sharpshooter Jennifer O'Neill, who was named to the 2013 Bridgeport Regional All-Tournament Team. However, there are three new faces that are looking to make an immediate impact on the program.

McDonald's All-Americans Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper join Kyvin Goodin-Rogers to create a top-10 recruiting class. With the newcomers, the Wildcats' roster of 13 student-athletes features seven McDonald's All-Americans, which is a school record.

"When you think about it, seven McDonald's All-Americans, that's a huge number and I think the seven of us have something different to contribute to the team," said the Chicago native, Harper. "That's why I think we're so special and different from other teams. That's why we're next. We're next up to being the best."

"When you see that seven of the 13 girls on our team, that's half the team, are McDonald's All-Americans, that's big," Epps echoed. "Having seven McDonald's All-Americans on a squad is just true talent. Coach Mitchell just recruits players and he ended up with seven McDonald's All-Americans."

With the highly rated recruiting class, Mitchell notched his fourth consecutive class ranked in the top 15 and highest since signing the No. 5 class in 2009. The class of three freshmen was ranked as high as No. 5 by All-Star Girls Report, No. 8 by Collegiate Girls Basketball Report and No. 10 by Blue Star Basketball.

The door is now open for Mitchell to continue to bring elite young talent to Kentucky on a consistent basis and with his signature style of play, early playing time is an attractive offer to recruits. The Big Blue Nation is well aware of the "40 Minutes of Dread" the Cats rely on, and because of that style Mitchell will use a lot of bodies to ensure fresh legs are always on the court.

"The '40 Minutes of Dread' really made a difference in the long run when they were playing teams," Harper explained. "That's what I like to play. I like to play that aggressive and intense type of basketball. Coach Mitchell and the coaching staff have high expectations, but they don't just put all their focus on basketball. They focus on things off the court as well to better us as a person. Those qualities led me here."

Under Mitchell, the women's basketball program has become one of the nation's best, while 11 different players have received All-SEC accolades. Another 12 have been named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll. A UK player has won the AP SEC Player of the Year four straight seasons, the first school in SEC history to do so. Two of his players, Victoria Dunlap and A'dia Mathies, were drafted in the first round of the WNBA. Dunlap was the 11th overall pick by the Washington Mystics in the 2011 Draft, while Mathies was the highest draft pick in school history, chosen as the 10th overall pick by the Los Angeles Sparks in the 2013 WNBA Draft.

For the three fresh faces on the squad this season, it will be their goal to be the next great Wildcat.

"The 2013 class is a great class for the UK Hoops program," Mitchell said. "We signed three of the very best players in the country. These players are very talented and all three bring unique gifts to our program. We are beyond thrilled to have them join the UK Hoops family."

Harper comes to Lexington with a stacked résumé as the nation's No. 5 prospect overall, which makes her the highest-rated recruit in UK Hoops history. This is just an example of how Mitchell has lifted the program to an extremely high level.

With that high ranking, however, come expectations. On whether or not Harper felt the pressure of those high expectations, she said yes and no.

"I was happy and shocked (about being the highest-rated recruit) and that actually put a little more pressure on me, but I knew regardless of what happens this year that I was going to strive for my goals," Harper said.

Harper averaged 19.0 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game for powerhouse Whitney Young High School as a senior, while helping her team go 34-0 and win the Class 4A championship.

Epps was ranked as the 15th-best overall player by All-Star Girls Report, while also earning a McDonald's All-American game invitation. The 5-10 guard recorded 23.0 points, 5.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 4.3 steals a game during her senior campaign and was named Kentucky Miss Basketball and 2013 Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year.

"That was a complete shock," said Epps who hails from nearby Lebanon, Ky. "I know I'm good, but being a McDonald's All-American is the highest honor you can receive coming out of high school, so just to be rewarded for the work I've put in and have people take notice of it, means a lot to me. I was with some of the biggest names in the 2013 class and I never would have thought it."

The final piece of the puzzle is another Lebanon, Ky., native in Goodin-Rogers. Goodin-Rogers and Epps were teammates at Marion County High School where they led their squad to a 39-0 record and its first state tournament title in eight appearances.

Goodin-Rogers was ranked in the top 75 in all major recruiting sites after nearly averaging a double-double. She plans to look back to former Wildcat great Victoria Dunlap's decorated career and apply it to her own game.

"She always worked hard in games and did what she was supposed to do," Goodin-Rogers said. "She played her role and hopefully I'm able to do the same."

In Mitchell's tenure, two players have earned All-American honors, Dunlap and Mathies. Epps, Goodin-Rogers and Harper all have the ingredients to be the next All-Americans at Kentucky.

"That's my goal, to become an All-American by the time I get out of college and to also be the SEC All-Freshman of the Year," Harper explained. "All these achievements or goals I want to get up to won't come easy, it comes with hard work and dedication and commitment. If I do everything I have to do and exceed in everything then I feel like I have a good shot at it."

The track record for young players having success early on in their careers favors Epps, Goodin-Rogers and Harper. In the last four seasons, Mathies and Bria Goss have earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors. In all, Mitchell has produced five All-SEC Freshmen honorees during his first six seasons in Lexington.

Even with a veteran-heavy roster, the three freshmen will be called upon to contribute this season, whether it's in a starting role or off the bench.

"Whether I'm starting the game or sixth man, seventh man or last person to go in the game, I'm still going to go in and give Coach Mitchell, the staff and the rest of my teammates my all, regardless of whether or not I'm coming in off the bench or starting the game," Epps said. "That doesn't matter to me because I'm going to contribute what I can to the team."

The trio will be an integral piece to getting the Wildcats back to the Elite Eight and beyond during their four years wearing the Blue and White.

"With the three of us freshmen I feel like we can live up to those expectations and get the job done," Harper said.

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