Cats Take Three-game Winning Streak on the Road to No. 6 Tennessee

Feb. 14, 2015

LEXINGTON, Ky. –  After a game sophomore guard Makayla Epps called “complete craziness,” Kentucky returns to the hardwood with another test against a nationally-ranked opponent when it travels to No. 6/6 Tennessee for a rematch with the Lady Vols. Tip off in Thompson-Boling Arena is slated for 3 p.m. ET as it will be televised live on ESPN2 and WatchESPN with Beth Mowins and Carolyn Peck calling the action. It also can also be heard live on the UK Radio Network with Neil Price and Sirius channel 92 and XM 190.

Gameday Central
Kentucky at Tennessee
Sunday, Feb. 15 - 3:00 p.m. ET
Knoxville, Tenn.
Game Notes: UK Get Acrobat Reader | UT Get Acrobat Reader
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TV: ESPN2
Radio: UK Sports Network
Live Video via WatchESPN
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“Tough game ahead on Sunday,” UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “As it stands now, Tennessee is a No. 1 seed, so they’re a great team and it was a tough game here, so it will be a team that’s played really, really well that you’ll have to go on their home court and beat. A lot of work between now and Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. We need to put our nose to the grindstone and see if we can go down there and compete.”

The Wildcats, who have climbed to the No. 3 spot in the Southeastern Conference standings, are coming off a thrilling double-overtime win over Mississippi State on Thursday. Epps had a career night, scoring 42 points and the game-winning basket with 0.4 remaining in the contest to put Kentucky up 92-90 in the second overtime. She became just the second player in the SEC in the last five years to have a 40-point game, joining teammate Jennifer O’Neill, who scored 43 points against Baylor in a quadruple overtime thriller a season ago.

Epps scored 15 of Kentucky’s 18 points in the two overtime periods, leading the way to her seventh double-figure scoring game in a row, and 20th in UK’s 24 games this season. She tied UK’s single-game record for most field goals made (18) with Valerie Still (18 vs. Florida on Feb. 20, 1982) – while her 30 FG attempts were the second-most in a single game in school history.

Overall this season, the guard trio of Epps, senior Jen O’Neill (Bronx, N.Y.), and sophomore guard Linnae Harper (Chicago) are three of the SEC’s top scorers in league play. Epps currently leads the league in scoring with 17.3 ppg, while O’Neill is tied for fifth with 14.0 ppg. Harper is 13th with 12.6 ppg and the trio makes up 52.4 percent of UK’s overall scoring.

Harper should also be considered one of the most versatile players in the SEC as she is the only player to rank in the league’s top 10 (SEC games only) in rebounding (T7th) and steals (2nd). Standing at just 5-foot-8, Harper is the only player under 5-foot-10 in the top 10 of SEC rebounding statistics and is one of only six players in the NCAA to stand at 5-8 or under and average at least 7.0 rebounds per game.

Tennessee is 21-3 overall and one of just two teams in the league undefeated at 11-0. The Lady Vols are returning to Thompson-Boling Arena after back-to-back road wins at Florida (64-56) and at Ole Miss (69-49).

Four players are averaging in double-digit scoring for UT this season, paced by Isabelle Harrison’s 13.2 points per game. She also is the team’s leading rebounder with 9.2 rpg.

Sunday will mark the 62nd meeting between Kentucky and Tennessee. UK has met UT more times than any other rival. The Lady Vols lead the all-time series 51-10, including 21-3 in Knoxville.

The last three matchups between the teams have been decided by a combined six points. UK defeated the Lady Vols last season in Knoxville, 75-71, marking the Wildcats’ first win in Knoxville, Tenn., since a 76-72 win in the Stokely Athletics Center in 1985 and first-ever win in Thompson-Boling Arena. The Cats then fell to the Lady Vols in the finals of the SEC Tournament, 71-70.

Earlier this season in Lexington, Tennessee escaped Memorial Coliseum with a 73-72 win. UK had four tries at the game-winning basket in the final 16 seconds but couldn’t connect. The loss snapped UK’s 13-game home winning streak. Epps scored 20 of her game-high 23 points in the second half, including UK’s final 10 points.

Media Opportunity - February 13, 2015

Head Coach Matthew Mitchell

Opening statement …
“Tough game ahead on Sunday. As it stands now, Tennessee is a No. 1 seed, so they’re a great team and it was a tough game here, so it will be a team that’s played really, really well that you’ll have to go on their home court and beat. A lot of work between now and Sunday afternoon at 3. We need to put our nose to the grindstone and see if we can go down there and compete.”

On what team learned about finishing a game from Thursday …
“We had a chance to finish well in regulation and didn’t play very smart there, so hopefully once we get the team together today we can learn from that and then it was a near disaster at the end of overtime and they found a way to get it into the second overtime and in the double overtime it was just a real good hustle play at the end. I just, it’s hard to describe how many mistakes we made last night. It was not a real great performance by us, but hopefully they will try to build on it. It’s a win; it’s significant and it’s against a really good team. Helps propel you forward. It’s another opportunity Sunday that can propel you forward if you can win the game, so for us right now we’re just trying to really still teach and get everyone on the same page. I know it’s like a broken record but I just try to be honest with everybody and let you know. A lot of times in the game, we had four people playing hard and four -- we had an eight-player rotation last night -- four people I thought really, really played hard and four people were very kind of sporadic with their effort and that’s just not a good formula for us. You see us get up by 14 and try to come out in the second half and establish a great lead and we didn’t do that, so it’s just still a real process for us we’re going to try to learn between now and Sunday and see if we can go down there and play a good game.”

On if winning there helps with confidence …
“I don’t know it would hurt for the players that were down there last year. A lot of players that weren’t that we’ll be counting on. Makayla’s role is much different than before. I haven’t looked, but I don’t remember her being a real big factor in the game last year. So a lot of different faces. It’ll be tough. It’ll be a big crowd and not many will be for us. Whatever benefit, I’ll be happy for it to be a benefit, but it won’t be something, that it’s not something where I’m saying, ‘Oh, wow, we won last year so mark it down this year.’ That’s not my approach. Still I just tend not to focus on the opponent right now. It looks like a lot of games are the same and we’re the common denominator. So just trying to get us to play smarter basketball, more consistent basketball. I just -- see if we can start clicking.”

On if he has to worry about Epps’ head getting too big after scoring 42 points in a game …  
“I don’t think that’ll be the case. There might’ve been a time in her life when it could’ve been the case, but I sense that she has grown a lot over the last year. I think coming out of high school that might’ve been the case. I think last year was very humbling for her. I think she also just has grown as a person and knows how much we need her. She and I are communicating closely, regularly. So we’ll talk about it. I texted her last night, just how proud I was, an epic night, an epic performance, but stay humble, stay hungry, come in tomorrow for improvement and so she, that’s not one of my main concerns going into the game. The conversation will be more of let’s do what we need to do to win. Do what you need to do to win. It may not be that she needs to score 42. It may be. She may need to score 50. I don’t know. She just needs to do what we need her to do to win that game. She needs to score for us. For us to be really good, she needs to be one of our scoring options. She’s very difficult to guard. But she doesn’t need to go out with the mindset that if you miss the first two or three, she’s behind pace or whatever. She just needs to stay focused on doing the things we need her to do to beat Tennessee. That’s what I’ll talk to her about.”

On how he has seen a change in Makayla over time on and off the court …
“This is where I’m hoping I can get some other key players into that mindset. It starts with your mindset. We started talking about what kind of person she wanted to be, let’s get very organized with our days, there are a lot of responsibilities on your shoulders trying to be a great student – she is a good student not a great student, but that’s all because of her approach to it. We’re trying to get her days organized. What are in your days? Well, there’s academics, and then I’ve got a big-time responsibility to get out on the floor and make shots, so I’ve got time where I need to work on that outside on my own. I’ve got to study and become a cerebral player where I know what the team is supposed to be doing so I can quarterback the team, I can coach the team, and I can be the extension of coach on the floor. That takes study time. She’s embraced all of that, but she is a work in progress. She still has room for improvement, but her mindset has changed, so when you are able to get all of that stuff to come together – the God-given talent that she has, a good, high basketball IQ, and then you get the uncommon work ethic that you try and preach here, then you take a good player and make her a great player. So, that’s what I think she can be. Will she? I tell her this all of the time – it’s not whether you can or you can’t – it’s whether you will or you won’t. A lot of that is up to her. I’m doing everything I can to help. I think she’s trending in that direction and it starts with how she is approaching life right now. It’s a lot different than when she was a young freshman and everybody thought she was the greatest. She was a very good high school player, but she needed to do things differently to be a great college player. I think she’s understanding that now.”

On Bria Goss’ progression in playing through the after effects of the thumb injury …
“I think she’s doing a great job. I think she is getting close. I think we’re in the process of trying to get the brace off for the postseason. It’s a much smaller brace now and I think she’ll be much more comfortable. I thought she was very effective for us last night and we need her defensive energy and she is very key to our improvement.”

On Makayla Epps having a special tie at UK with her father being a legendary men’s player …
“Her love for this university is very evident. That’s not something that she shies away from, but it’s not something we talk a lot about. To me, it’s not a huge factor to me in her improvement and how she is going to get better. I tell this to all Kentucky players that we get involved with in the recruiting process. Jen O’Neill – they cheer her when they call her name and she gets huge cheers. But there is something different in that starting lineup and it’s Makayla Epps, or it’s been any of our Kentucky kids. It’s just different. And then for Makayla, with the lineage that she comes from and what Anthony means to the men’s program, that amps it up a little more. And then Makayla is such a great connector with people. She has such a great personality and a great enthusiasm for life and she is a very popular player here, and what we want is her to be a great, popular player here. She will always be popular. If she could just get incrementally better just through the experiences of playing, she will be fine and will probably be in the running for an All-League player. If she really becomes great, she’ll be an All-American, she’ll be the SEC Player of the Year, she’ll be a first-round draft choice, and she’ll play in the pros for 10 years. That’s where we want her to get, too.”

Sophomore Guard Makayla Epps