Freshmen Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper combined for 22 points in UK's SEC semifinal win over South Carolina on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
DULUTH, Ga. -- Before each game, Matthew Mitchell writes his three core principles of honesty, hard work and discipline on Kentucky's locker-room white board.
At least for one day, Mitchell added a fourth.
"Dang near everything he wrote on the board had 'attack' by it and that's what we had to do," Makayla Epps said.
With Kentucky set for a Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinal showdown with top-seeded and fifth-ranked South Carolina on Saturday, Mitchell didn't want two previous defeats at the hands of the Gamecocks on the Wildcats' minds. He didn't want his team to be overwhelmed by the stage.
He only wanted them to go, go, go.
"That was the word that we wanted to rule the day for us," Mitchell said. "Don't worry about the outcome, the result, just get in attack mentality and stay there."
Based on Saturday's performance, Mitchell may want to make attack a white-board fixture.
UK blitzed South Carolina, using a 12-0 run to take an early 10-point lead. In spite of being throttled by the Gamecocks (27-5) at home barely two weeks ago, the Cats (24-7) led by no fewer than six from that point forward in a 68-58 win, their fourth over a top-10 opponent this season.
"I thought you saw a heavy dose of that early in the game," Mitchell said. "We were able to sustain it for 40 minutes. It was really impressive. I'm extremely proud of the players. This is a great effort."
A great effort headlined by two players who didn't need to be told twice to attack.
A month ago, Linnae Harper and Makayla Epps weren't sure from game to game what their roles would be. The two McDonald's All-Americans would play single-digit minutes one game, then score double-digit points the next.
Now, with UK using more zone defense and less full-court press to adjust for their strengths and weaknesses at this early point of their career, Harper and Epps are featured pieces in the UK backcourt in their first postseason.
"Some freshmen don't get the opportunity to play at all," Epps said. "Some freshmen have to wait 'til their sophomore year to even go out there and touch the court. But me and Linnae getting the opportunity to go out there and play is real encouraging to us."
They are taking full advantage.
Harper scored 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting in a career-high 27 minutes, adding five rebounds, two assists and a block. She was confident both shooting from mid-range and driving to the basket. She got to the line repeatedly, though she missed four of her six attempts.
"You know, I thought she was sort of a great example of the entire team," Mitchell said. "We played with a tremendous amount of poise and toughness. We got down to the last seconds of shot clocks a few times and made buckets."
Had UK not coupled that poise with the attacking mentality Mitchell was demanding, Saturday's win likely doesn't happen at all. Facing a South Carolina defense undisputedly among the best in the nation, the Cats didn't concede any possessions.
When chances early in the shot clock were there, UK took them. When they weren't, UK was content to run its offense in locking up a place in Sunday's SEC Tournament final at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN against third-seeded Tennessee (26-5).
"We were very patient and we used the clock to our advantage," Harper said. "So we just took our time, ran our sets, stayed focus and had poise."
Most often, it was Epps' setting the tone at point guard. She played the position throughout her 25 minutes, scoring 10 points and dishing out two assists. Epps has come a long way since the eight-game stretch in SEC play during which she didn't score a point as she bounced between the post and the perimeter.
"Whenever he had me at three, four -- especially the four -- I was really out of sync," Epps said. "But I was doing what the team needed me to do and now he's got trust in me to play the point guard like I did in high school."
In a happy -- though not celebratory, at least not yet -- postgame locker room, Epps was told UK had just five turnovers as a team. At first, she misunderstood and thought five was her individual total before pausing to clarify. Told the amount -- fewest of the Mitchell era -- was for the whole team, Epps was slightly astonished.
"Whoa, now that's something," Epps said.
When you consider UK played two freshmen a combined 52 minutes in the backcourt, it's something indeed. It also has a lot to do with the bond Epps and Harper have built in short order.
"The connection we have already is just crazy," Epps said. "I basically just met her in August and then at (the) McDonald's (All-American game), but the way we click now is crazy. I feel I've been playing with her for years."
"Our chemistry is just there," Harper said. "So it was fun. But at the same time, it was business too. We had to take care of business, do what we were supposed to do and we came out on top."
Not long ago, the thought of UK taking down the SEC champion and advancing to the league tournament final would have seemed as farfetched as the idea of Epps and Harper playing such important roles. Now, the Cats are making their share of March Madness noise and intent on making more.
"It shows a lot about our character on and off the court," Harper said. "We don't really dwell on the past. We just focus on now and we still have a month left of basketball to play, so we're just worried about us now and just still practicing every day to get better."UK, Tennessee set to face off in final
Immediately after UK's upset of South Carolina, Tennessee closed its semifinal matchup with Texas A&M on an 11-2 run en route to an 86-77 win over the Aggies. Isabelle Harrison had 20 points and 13 rebounds to lead the way.
"It was a battle and it was a grind," Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick said.
UK claimed the lone regular-season matchup between the two rivals on Feb. 16, 75-71, the Cats' first win in Knoxville, Tenn., since 1985.
"That was our goal, to get to the finals," Warlick said. "And then get an opportunity to play Kentucky, who beat us on our home floor..
Kentucky and Tennessee last matchup in the postseason in 2011, when the Lady Volunteers claimed the SEC Tournament championship with a 90-65 win over Kentucky.