'New Season' Starts at Home, Stays at Home for Cats
Makayla Epps will admit it. She was nervous watching the Selection Show.
“Whenever the Lexington Region came up, I felt butterflies in my stomach,” Epps said.
Epps – a Kentucky native – knew the bracket well. She knew UK would open the NCAA Tournament with first- and second-round games in Memorial Coliseum if it received a top-four seed. She knew the Wildcats would play potential Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in Rupp Arena if they were placed in the Lexington Regional.
“I want to play at home,” Epps said. “I want to play in Memorial. I want to play at Rupp. I want to play in front of the Big Blue Nation.”
She got her wish on Monday night.
UK was tabbed a No. 3 seed, set to open the NCAA Tournament on Saturday at 4 p.m. in Memorial. There was no doubt the Cats (23-7) would be making their seventh straight NCAA Tournament appearance when selections were made, but talk around the women’s basketball community was inconclusive at best when it came to their placement in Lexington Regional.
The players certainly were aware of that.
“You know what, I was a little surprised,” senior Janee Thompson said. “The rumors, the chatter, we were hearing that we might go somewhere else, but it’s a great opportunity for us and we’re excited to get back on the floor, try to work our way through the tournament.”
Matthew Mitchell, who was part of the bidding process for the right to host a regional from the very beginning, is above all else thankful.
“I am just so grateful for the opportunity to try to make it to Rupp Arena and really grateful to have that opportunity,” Mitchell said. “I think it is going to be great for our city if we can get that done and really grateful for our team to play another chance to play another game at Memorial.”
Mitchell is wise to bring the talk back from Rupp to Memorial, because that’s where the journey begins for the Cats. UNC Asheville enters with an impressive 26-6 record and a Big South Conference championship, while the winner of No. 6 Oklahoma and No. 11 Purdue will stand in the way of a trip to the regional should UK advance to the second round.
“We’re excited and, you know, like Coach has been telling us it doesn’t matter who we play,” Thompson said. “We’ve working really hard. We’ve been preparing really hard physically. We just gotta make sure we have our minds right and whoever it is, we’ll be ready.”
Outside of a blowout loss to top-seeded South Carolina in the SEC Tournament semifinals, UK has been ready for all comers since Feb. 7. The Cats won eight straight games against SEC opponents – all but one by double digits – prior to that defeat, responding well after falling to 4-6 in league play.
Now UK hopes to have the same response for that loss to the Gamecocks.
“We were a little disappointed about the SEC Tournament,” Thompson said. “We didn’t think we played the way we wanted to, but Coach Mitchell told us that this was a new season. It’s a fresh start, so we’re really excited. I know it’s been—it feels like it’s been so long since we played, so we can’t wait to get back out there.”