Cats Proud even with Season-Ending Disappointment
Matthew Mitchell had just seen his Kentucky’s season end, and all he really wanted was to coach another game.
In spite of it all, he still wouldn’t rather have another team in the world.
“I just have to tell you, this was one of the greatest experiences of my coaching career, working with this group of young women who really became a team,” Mitchell said.
The Wildcats (25-8) fell 85-72 to Washington (25-8) in front of a Rupp Arena crowd eager to cheer them on to victory, leaving Mitchell to reflect on the year that was in 2015-16. Though it was tinged with the disappointed of a Sweet 16 defeat, he felt overwhelming pride in doing so.
“High-character people, came to practice every day and improved,” Mitchell said, “and where we started on October 1st to what we've finished up tonight, the disappointment of this one game just cannot diminish how proud I am of our team.”
The players sitting next to him for UK’s postgame press conference were foremost on his mind.
“Really proud of Janee Thompson and the person she's developed into and the leader she's developed into for our team,” Mitchell said. “Really proud of the progress Makayla Epps made as a person, so I'm proud to be up on the podium with both of them tonight.”
Epps just concluded one of the most decorated individual seasons in school history, capped by a valiant 30-point performance while playing through a shoulder injury. She racked up the postseason awards, had a triple-double and topped the 1,000-point mark for her career.
But in her mind and her coach’s, her greatest accomplishment wasn’t about anything that happened on the floor. It was about the progress she made in the wake of an offseason incident and resulting early-season suspension.
Epps credits her coach for that.
“He came in here over the summer and we worked together as a team, as a duo,” Epps said. “He sat me down and we just talked about life and then a bunch of like growing, building activities, stuff that I really just needed to grow and mature, not just as a player, but as a person too.
“So a lot of credit for my progress goes to him. Just me buckling down and looking at myself in the mirror and taking the steps to make the changes necessary for me to become the person I am now.”
Thompson has made similar strides over the course of her four-year UK career, developing from a highly touted freshman who frequently butted heads with her coach to a senior leader who served as an on-court extension of her coach.
Like Epps, she topped the 1,000-point mark for her career this season, capping a remarkable comeback from a devastating injury that prematurely ended her junior season. But serving as a fitting representation of her evolution, her primary source of pride was her teammates.
“It's meant a lot to me seeing these girls grow and get better every day,” Thompson said. “It's been very fun. I've become really close with this team and they're like my family. They're like my sisters. I'm really proud of how far we've come and how much better we've gotten. I wouldn't rather be out here with anybody else. It's been a fun ride.”
The paths for Thompson and Epps will diverge, with Thompson off to pursue her post-college future degree in hand and Epps returning to lead her team as a senior. But they were a unit one final time on Friday night, even if it was in defeat.
“It's what's made the year so enjoyable is that we had a high-character group this year that really showed up every day and did their best,” Mitchell said. “If they didn't, they would take direction and try to do better the next day. So they've both had a great year, and we wouldn't have been playing tonight if it hadn't been for their progress as people and leaders, so proud of both of them.”