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Gutsy Epps carries Cats to SEC semis

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Makayla Epps scored 31 points to lead UK to a comeback victory over Mississippi State on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Makayla Epps scored 31 points to lead UK to a comeback victory over Mississippi State on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
They say no one makes it to March 100-percent healthy, but Makayla Epps isn't anywhere close.

Epps is battling a strained Achilles tendon, plus the normal wear and tear of a long season. She limped visibly at points during a matchup with Mississippi State on Friday night.

But when it counted, she wasn't about to let it slow her down.

"You know what, I was cramping up, I was hurting and stuff like that you just gotta fight through because my team needed me," Epps said.

Epps delivered.

The sophomore guard and daughter of former national champion Anthony Epps fought through the pain to play 38 minutes. Not only that, she shook off any defenders the third-seeded Bulldogs threw at her to score 31 points in an effort nothing short of heroic. On the back of Epps, UK (23-8) advanced to the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament with a 76-67 victory.

"She was real tough," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "I'm real proud of her. Big night. We needed every bucket she made."

Epps started strong, scoring 16 points in the first half. UK, however, trailed by four points at the break after using a strong finish to trim a lead that was once as large as 10 points.

After the break, Mississippi State (26-6) seized control once again. The Bulldogs took a 54-39 lead with 15:18 left behind Victoria Vivians, who scored 10 of her 19 points in the opening minutes of the second half.

The Cats wouldn't go away.

"We just talked about trying to be tough in the second half, and we were tough," Mitchell said. "We were really tough and did it with a really untraditional lineup because of the foul trouble. So I couldn't be prouder of the players."

Epps, no doubt, is at the top of the list.

With the Cats in a hole, she pulled them out. At one point, she scored 11 straight points for Kentucky, the last of which on a 3-pointer that pulled UK into a 58-58 tie. On the following possession, she found high-school teammate Kyvin Goodin-Rogers for a go-ahead 3 in the midst of a back-breaking 30-6 run for UK.

"Her contribution was significant," Mitchell said. "I was most proud about the way she handled herself. If there was ever a time to get negative and down, it was with 15 minutes left in the game and we were down 15. We did not have anything going at all. We hung in there as a team. I think she was a part of that."

Epps has been brilliant for nearly every second of the two games she's played against Mississippi State this season. Less than a month ago, she poured in 42 points, including a buzzer-beating game winner, in a double-overtime thriller in Memorial Coliseum. Combining the two games, Epps has scored 73 points on 30-of-51 shooting.

"Like I just told their coach, they make me step up and play to my highest potential and I salute them for that," Epps said. "That's not doing anything but making me a better player and making my team better against tough competition like Mississippi State."

Epps is line to face more tough competition in the semifinals with a matchup against second-seeded Tennessee (26-4). The Lady Volunteers dismantled Georgia to advance to face Kentucky and twice defeated the Cats during the regular season.

"They're up on us two games to none and slipped one in on us in Lexington and then got us pretty good down in Knoxville," Epps said. "Our chances tomorrow, my dad always told me it's hard to beat a team three times."

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