Cats Excited to Host, Focused on Task at Hand

Kentucky had a bit of a wait on its hands watching the Selection Show.

Awaiting their seed and destination in the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats had to be patient as the first three brackets were revealed and UK never appeared.

Some tension might have mounted, but the Cats believed in the resume they had put together.

“I felt confident in what we’ve done throughout the season to bake us a pretty good cake to keep us in Lexington and I had some faith in the Selection Committee that they would keep us in Lexington,” Makayla Epps said.

Finally, it was time for the Lexington Regional to be unveiled. There the Cats (21-10) were, a No. 4 seed in their home region opening the NCAA Tournament in Memorial Coliseum with a matchup against No. 13 Belmont (27-5) at noon on Friday.

“It’s a great, great opportunity for us to play in Memorial Coliseum,” Matthew Mitchell said. “We felt like our resume was strong enough to get that done, so we weren’t completely surprised. We had a little bit of control of how we played and putting ourselves in that position.”

UK put itself in that position by playing one of the nation’s toughest schedules, winning some big games and finishing in a tie for third in the rugged Southeastern Conference. The result is an eighth straight NCAA Tournament berth and yet another high seed.

“I’m just so proud of this group of people who did the work, came together as a team, and never complained,” Mitchell said. “We had zero drama on this team, zero attitudes and it was just a fantastic group to coach. They’ve had to work really hard to be the team they are right now and that’s what I’m proud about. I’m proud of this group of players and this team. They’re a really, really special team.”

That special team will now get at least one more opportunity to play in its home, Memorial. Epps and Evelyn Akhator, UK’s seniors, will relish that, particularly since it was a signature Senior Night win over South Carolina that likely cinched the right to host for UK.

“I think what’s so awesome is that our last win at home probably got us where we are now,” Mitchell said. “And so that night, we wanted to win for them so badly and they wanted to win, but I felt really good that (Epps) would get another day in Memorial Coliseum and I think it’s fantastic. She’s done so much for us, Evelyn has done so much for us – they’re both great, great people and I know they’ll both be excited when the ball goes in the air on Friday night.”

A win on Friday would send UK to a second-round showdown with either fifth-seeded Ohio State or No. 12 Western Kentucky University. Then, if the Cats win that, it’s on to Rupp Arena for the Sweet 16.

That’s a long way away though, which was Mitchell’s immediate message to his team once the bracket was unveiled.

“The only thing that really matters for us is Friday and that’s the way you’ve got to go into it and look at it,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got to get prepared because if you don’t get it done Friday, you certainly won’t get it done in Rupp Arena. You’ve got to take care of Friday and that’s what we’re worried about right now.” 

That approach is the correct one, because beating Belmont will be a challenge. 

The Bruins have reeled off 21 straight victories to sweep the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season and tournament championships. Belmont is ranked in the top 20 nationally in scoring offense, field-goal percentage, 3-pointers made and 3-point percentage.

“One thing I know is how tough that league is after coaching in that league,” Mitchell said. “If you’re regular season and tournament champions – you’re a good team. So, I don’t know a lot about them – I just know that if they’re tough and gritty, they’ll have winning on their minds. So, we have to get winning on our minds to get prepared for them. We’ll go back to the office tonight and dig into it and see what Belmont is working with.” 

Epps and the Cats heard Mitchell’s message loud and clear.

“We’re just going to take it one game at a time, start off in Memorial and hopefully get the chance to play in Rupp,” Epps said.

Murray, Roper tracking toward return

Taylor Murray and Jaida Roper sustained injuries in UK’s SEC Tournament run, but both guards are working to be back on the floor when the Cats play on Friday. Mitchell said UK hopes to have Murray (whiplash) back on Wednesday or Thursday, while Roper (head) returned to practice on Monday.