Epps Emerging as Go-To Scorer, Leader

There isn’t a player on the Kentucky roster who understands the rivalry with Louisville better than Makayla Epps.

She played like it on Thursday night.

Epps – the Lebanon, Ky., native whose father, Anthony, went 3-1 against the Cardinals as a member of UK’s men’s team – was nearly flawless against rival U of L in scoring 24 points.

“I had the night I had, but honestly even if I wasn’t scoring I was out there having the time of my life regardless,” Epps said.

She missed just one shot in 11 tries in the third-best shooting performance in school history and pacing Kentucky (8-0) in a mostly dominant 72-54 win.

“We were really excited to win, obviously,” UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “It’s a big game and a big rivalry and Louisville’s awfully talented and really tough to play against, well coached, always. For us to be able to come in and earn a victory was really big for us.”

UK was in front from the moment Epps made her first basket 10 seconds in and led by double digits the entire second half. The Cats’ fifth straight win over the Cardinals (3-5) was a foregone conclusion well before the final buzzer.

Epps had a lot to do with that.

Late in the third period, Louisville had cut Kentucky’s lead to 47-37 with an 11-4 run. Sensing the magnitude of the moment, Mitchell called a timeout and directed the ball to his star.

“That’s something I had prepared myself for,” Epps said. “Me and Coach Mitchell had talked about that. He said that sometimes the ball was going to need to be in my hands. I’m perfectly fine with that.”

Unsurprisingly, she answered the bell by scoring, getting fouled and hitting the free throw on the play Mitchell called for her. Epps also scored the next trip, after which U of L would never again seriously threaten.

“It’s always good when you can get her the ball and she can go execute an and-one play and then came right back down and made another tough play,” Mitchell said. “That was very steadying for us because the momentum was really in Louisville’s favor at that point in time.”

That role as UK’s go-to scorer goes hand in hand with the identity as a leader Epps is beginning to form as a junior. She took a major step forward with that this week.

In practice on Tuesday, the second unit was having some struggles. Epps was playing well enough herself, but it was her silence in the midst of her teammates’ struggles that caught Mitchell’s attention. That’s why he summoned her for a meeting afterward.

“She and I sat down and just said, ‘You really have to exert yourself as a leader on this team,’ ” Mitchell said. “And yesterday, she listened and then she came back and showed great leadership (Wednesday) and I thought she had some great moments tonight.”

Such moments never happened in Epps’ first two seasons, when she freely admits she rarely spoke up. But now, playing on a team she says is her favorite of her time at Kentucky, she’s learning to assert herself.

“He has this year really challenged me to step up and be a leader being that our team is really young,” Epps said. “We have a lot of freshmen, this is their first go at it and I’m a junior now, believe it or not. It’s just something I gotta embrace and I have embraced it. I found out that I can do it. It’s not hard to open your mouth and say the right things.”

With Epps emerging, the ceiling becomes even higher for a team that’s already shown incredible promise.

“That’s the exciting thing, I think, for our team, is that we do have an upside that we have not reached,” Mitchell said. “We can continue to get better.”