Memorable Careers End for Epps, Akhator with Near-Comeback

Things looked bleak at halftime, but Matthew Mitchell believed.

The deficit might have been 15 points against a team ranked No. 11/10 in the two major polls, but he told his team they could come back.

Turns out the Wildcats believed too.

“Coach told us that we could come back so we weren’t in the locker room defeated,” Makayla Epps said. “We might have been a little deflated but we were never defeated going into the break.”

Even after fifth-seeded Ohio State scored the first four points of the second half to build a 19-point lead, No. 4 Kentucky charged back. It just wasn’t quite enough.

“We dug ourselves in a big hole and fought hard to get out of it,” Mitchell said. “We weren't able to make it all the way back, but I'm really proud of their effort.”

UK (22-11) closed within one point in the fourth quarter in an electric Memorial Coliseum on Sunday, but the Big Ten champion Buckeyes managed to hold on for an 82-68 victory to advance to the Sweet 16. A memorable and important season for the Cats, meanwhile, comes to an end.

“I don't know that I've ever been prouder to be the coach at Kentucky to have had the honor of coaching this group,” Mitchell said. “We're sad today, but we'll hold our heads high, knowing that we accomplished what every university that has a program--I think you would want to have a team at the end of it. That's a tremendous accomplishment. It doesn't always happen, but it happened at Kentucky this year. I'm really proud of our players that became a great team."

It should come as no surprise that that team refused to wilt even when the deficit approached 20 points, not with seniors Epps and Evelyn Akhator setting the tone. All season and especially on Sunday, UK’s two veterans played like they wanted no part of seeing their time as Wildcats end.

Unfortunately, their memorable careers came to a close anyway.

“I'm so grateful for those two because they've taught me as much of anything that I've taught them,” Mitchell said. “They gave me, and all of us here who have worked hard to build a good program that has integrity and develops people and isn't just about winning games. We also develop people.”

Two outstanding people left the floor in Memorial for the last time on Sunday.

There’s Epps, the in-state product who came to Lexington a prep star. Her talent was always clear but, like most teenagers, she had some growing up to do. Kentucky was the perfect place for her to do that.

“It’s a lot more than just basketball for me,” said Epps, who scored 21 points. “Basketball isn’t forever for me but just to know that I have made a huge impact on so many people’s lives during my four years here means the world to me.”

The same can be said about Akhator, though she only had two years in which to make an impact after arriving from Lagos, Nigeria, via Chipola Junior College. 

“I only spent two years here and it’s been the best two years of my life,” said Akhator, who had 14 points and a career-high 23 rebounds for her 31st career double-double. “I’m really close to the coaches but Coach Mitchell treated me like a daughter and I was able to open up to him. I don’t open up. I usually keep things to myself. He was able to get through to me which made much more comfortable with him and my teammates.”

To hear Epps and Akhator reflect on their time at UK is to understand why they were both so emotional as they left the court for the final time. They realized they weren’t going to be playing with a group of women who had become their family anymore.

“I became so close to my teammates and I really opened up to them,” Akhator said. “Every time I was down they always knew something was wrong with me and they would try to talk to me about it and just get me to let it go. It has been a huge impact in my life and they became family to me. My two years here has been like four years not just in Kentucky but it’s like I have been here forever. Honestly, Kentucky is like my home away from home and I will never forget that.”

Neither will UK forget them.

Mitchell told Epps and Akhator after the game the two will receive rings whenever Kentucky wins its first national championship. Without them, it would not have been possible. It was those two seniors that steadied the ship in the midst of the worst storm UK’s program has ever faced under Mitchell.

“It looked very unusual last spring,” Mitchell said. “To go through all of that and hear those two talk about their experience, it lets you know what Kentucky is about. And what all of us are about. They didn't just mention me. They mentioned their teammates and what kind of young women they are. No advancement in this tournament, no trophy we could've won can replace the gift that they gave me, which is that honesty, hard work, and discipline still work.”