Epps Guts One Out as Cats Advance to Sweet 16
It looked like Kentucky might be without its star and leading scorer.
Makayla Epps injured her shoulder midway through the third quarter, asking to be subbed out after she was fouled hard on a fast break and made one of two free throws.
As she sat, Oklahoma made its run in the second-round NCAA Tournament matchup. Suddenly, the Sooners closed to within two points. UK’s training staff eventually cleared Epps to return, but it still didn’t look good.
“When Epps came back the first time, you’re right, it looked like she was playing with one arm,” Mitchell said. “And I was trying to get her out. I didn’t think it looked safe. It didn’t look good to me.”
The team doctor and Epps herself reassured Mitchell she was OK to play with an injury she described as a sprained AC joint even though she at first held her arm limply at her side. He wasn’t quite sure until Epps buried a 3-pointer, a shot that keyed the run that turned a close game into a 79-58 win.
“What you saw, when she was hurt, she made a 3,” Mitchell said. “So it was functional; it was just very painful. And I just didn’t want her to hurt herself further. But man, she really gutted it out.”
Epps’ 3 was her only field goal of the game, as the Sooners tirelessly dogged the junior from tip to buzzer. She was nonetheless a stabilizing and inspirational presence for her team as the Wildcats (25-7) advanced to the Sweet 16, where they will face seventh-seeded Washington (24-10) at 7 p.m. on Friday in Rupp Arena.
“I’m really proud of Makayla,” Mitchell said. “I think she’ll be pretty sore tomorrow, but we’ll shut here down tomorrow and let her take as much time as she needs and get her ready for Friday.”
Epps scored six points and played solid defense as UK closed the game with a 29-12 spurt and allowed the Sooners (22-11) to make just one of their final 12 shots. She had 13 points for the game, making 10-of-14 free throws.
“It shows the kind of heart and tenacity she has,” said Janee Thompson, who scored her 1,000th career point in her final game in Memorial Coliseum. “We all care about each other a lot and it had to be real serious for her to not come back. She cares about her teammates.”
Oklahoma clearly made limiting Epps’ opportunities a top priority, creating space early for the likes of Maci Morris.
Some players have a way of stepping up come NCAA Tournament time, taking their game to a new level when it matters most. Morris, it seems, falls into that category. Two days after Morris buried all three of her 3-point attempts and tied a career best with six rebounds in her March Madness debut, the freshman continued her sharp-shooting ways.
“The team realizes that we need to shoot and score and they tell me that if I’m open on the 3-point line to be ready to shoot and knock down shots,” Morris said. “And I’m just glad I was able to do that for them.”
Morris poured in 12 points, all on first-half 3s that came as UK’s three leading scorers – Epps, Thompson and Evelyn Akhator – combined for just 11 points. In making her first four 3s, Morris extended her streak of streak of made treys to start her tournament career to seven.
“I thought Maci gave us a lift early when she made her first four 3s,” Mitchell said. “She was lighting it up in warmups. I told her I didn’t know that she missed a shot in warmups. You never know how it’s going to go in a game but man, she really did a good job there.”
Morris stepping up is merely the latest example of a season-long trend.
“It is a beautiful thing to be coaching this team right now, because these are great kids that really, really have come together and they are a true team,” Mitchell said. “And we talk about that all the time from the standpoint of ‘go make a play for your team,’ because not only is it good for you, your team cares so much about you.”
That team now gets to play together for at least one more game, and in front of its home fans to boot.
“It’s really, really exciting,” UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “A lot of positive energy heading into the Sweet 16.”