Epps' Second-Half Outburst Lifts Cats Past Lady Vols

Finding a rhythm proved to be difficult for Makayla Epps against Tennessee.

The Lady Volunteers confounded her for 20 minutes with their length, but the second half was a different story.

Epps was the one doing all the confounding after halftime.

“Boy, she really, really took over in the third quarter,” Matthew Mitchell said. “That was a huge positive development for our team.”

Epps was nothing short of dominant in the second half for UK (15-3, 5-3 Southeastern Conference), scoring 17 of her 23 points after the break. With Epps leading the way, UK overcame a first-half deficit as large as 10 points en route to a 64-63 victory over Tennessee (9-4, 3-4 SEC).

“You don’t feel like you’re producing or doing anything for your team and then you’re down seven, so you’re really like, ‘Yeah, you didn’t help your team at all,’ " Epps said. "But you gotta come out the second half and help your team.”

That came on the heels of a first half in which she managed just six points on 3-of-9 shooting. But when she emerged from the locker room, she exploded. Epps scored Kentucky’s first seven points of the third quarter and never looked back, save for nervous moments at the end as UK nearly coughed up a 10-point lead in the final 5:36.

“What you saw at the end of the game, we’ve been looking at in practice,” Mitchell said after UK committed five turnovers in the final five minutes. “That’s where we are right now. We have a lot of work.”

But in the end, Epps’ 14-point third-quarter explosion was enough to survive. It was an outburst inspired by a simple message her coach delivered to his entire team.

“I just tried to remind Makayla: Just get really fundamentally sound,” Mitchell said. “The attitude she needs to have is that no one can guard her. She is a fantastic player, but she’s gotta play with tremendous focus and confidence and she’s gotta do it right, have good footwork.”

The message about fundamentals and confidence is one Epps has heard countless times before.

“To be as big as I am, sometimes I fade away from the contact or I go in there off one foot,” Epps said. “So he wants me to work on coming off two feet and just using my strength to my advantage and just going through people.”

When it all clicks, it looks like it did in the third quarter. For the 6,188 fans in Memorial Coliseum who were in full voice during the second half, it was a sight to behold. The same was true for the players passing her the ball.

“She gets really pumped and the energy she has really fuels our team and we all feed off of that,” said Janee Thompson, who scored UK’s final five points to preserve the victory. “And it’s good to see her go off like that. She’s a really good player and when she has the confidence to realize that she can just be unstoppable sometimes it’s something to watch, even as her teammate out there playing with her.”

Having lost two of three entering Monday’s game, the Cats needed that out of their leading scorer and best player. To sustain the momentum, they’ll need it from Epps again and again.

“Makayla cannot let her confidence drop as easily as it has in this little rough patch for us,” Mitchell said. “And I was proud of her in the second half. She played with a lot more confidence.”