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Women’s Basketball Preview: What does this team look like without Epps, Akhator?

@KentuckyWBB

Last year’s women’s basketball team was one to remember. The season was plagued with controversy from the start, following a tumultuous 2015-16 season in which seven players and three assistant coaches left the program. Still, head coach Matthew Mitchell and his new team of assistants managed to salvage the season.

Sure, they had a few heartbreaking losses – like when they fell to Louisville 71-73 in overtime – but they also had some amazing moments – like when the unranked Wildcats defeated No. 3 Mississippi State in an overtime, senior night victory. They finished tied for third in the SEC and they advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. The season didn’t end the way they wanted it to, but it exceeded expectations nonetheless.

None of this would have been possible without seniors Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator. By the end of the season, both women earned their place in the University of Kentucky record books: Akhator is second on the all-time rebounding list (averaging 10.8 rebounds per game); Epps is fifth in program history career points (averaging 17.7 points per game). Both were named honorable mention All-Americans and both were selected in the 2017 WNBA Draft: Akhator going at No. 3 (the highest in program history) and Epps at No. 33.

But as fun as that team was, it’s over, and it’s time to move forward. Just ask Coach Mitchell, who doesn’t even remember the final record from last season.

“Whatever our record was… 22 and whatever, I don’t remember the record. But I’ll never forget that team,” Mitchell said. “I forget the records and maybe the scores of the games overall, but I won’t forget that team.”

(In case you were wondering, their final record was 22-11).

“It’s going to be an interesting journey,” Mitchell said of this year’s team. “A lot of statistical things that we’ll have to replace with the loss of Makayla and Evelyn. And that’s really evident to everyone.”

@KentuckyWBB

First things first, the team has to fill the hole at point. Epps primarily ran this position last season, even though it wasn’t her natural spot. This year, the role will belong to junior Taylor Murray.

Last season, Murray came into her role as a major contributor, and that’s only continued over the summer. She finished her junior season with an average of 12.2 points per game and 4.9 rebounds. But the most notable aspect of her game has to be her speed, Mitchell says.

“What a fantastic improvement we saw from the start of her sophomore year until the end, and that’s carried on,” Mitchell said. “We have one of the great weapons in the country to be an up-tempo, fast-paced team when you have arguably the fastest… clearly [Murray] has elite-level speed.”

Then there are the other returners. Maci Morris, who finished as the team’s third leading scorer last season behind Epps and Akhator, has made a “huge jump” going into her junior season, according to Mitchell. Last year, criticism of Morris was largely centered on her defensive abilities, something she says she’s really focused on during the off-season.

“That I’m not just a shooter,” Morris said when asked what people will see change in her game this year. “I’m not a liability on defense.”

Alyssa Rice is another player who has to step up this season in Epps and Akhator’s absence.

“There’s no question as a fourth year senior we’re looking to her to give us some great production statistically and also from a leadership standpoint,” Mitchell said of Rice. Plus, she’s funny:

This leadership component could be what makes or breaks the Cats this season. With such a young team, Mitchell has to rely on the upperclassmen.

A freshman’s not going to step in and replace Makayla Epps; a freshman’s not going to step in and replace Evelyn Akhator,” Mitchell said. “You hope your seniors are better, and your juniors are better, and your sophomores and then your freshmen get better over time. You do it as a team; you do it as a group.”

So what is this group capable of? As seen during their open practice on Media Day, it’s raw. The potential was there, and there were moments that looked really good. But there were also moments that so clearly needed work. The Cats still have a couple of weeks before their season opener, and they’re optimistic.

“We have no idea what our ceiling is, so why put any limits on that?” Mitchell said. “Why say, ‘well we’d like to go 20-10 and be a No. 9 seed in the tournament – that’d be a really great year for us.’ That’s never been what we’ve done.”

Kentucky’s first test of the season will be on November 5 at 7 p.m. in Memorial Coliseum against the University of Southern Indiana.


@MaggieDavisKSR


UK announces new voice of women’s basketball, baseball

UK announces new voice of women’s basketball, baseball

With Neil Price now calling football games in Starkville, UK has hired the new voice of women’s basketball and baseball: Darren Headrick.

Headrick has a decade’s worth of experience announcing collegiate and professional sports and was named a Baseball America Best MLB Broadcaster Prospect honoree in 2015. He will also serve as the host of the Matthew Mitchell Radio Show, Nick Mingione Radio Show, the Wildcat Sports Update, and Big Blue Weekly. He will host his first Big Blue Weekly show tonight following the Mark Stoops Radio Show.

Headrick comes to Kentucky after spending the past few years as the TV and radio play-by-play announcer for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Yankees. A Tennessee native and UT graduate, he also spent the past few seasons calling University of Tennessee basketball, baseball, softball and soccer games on the SEC Network+.

Here are some samples of his work so you can get to know his voice:

Welcome aboard, Darren.


UK athletics

Three takeaways from yesterday’s women’s basketball open practice

UK athletics

Following Coach Mitchell’s Media Day press conference Tuesday, members of the media were allowed to sit in on a women’s basketball practice. Savannah gave us plenty of sights and sounds from the practice, but here are some leftover thoughts from yesterday’s game.

He wasn’t kidding about their speed

Coach Mitchell spent a lot time during his press conference talking about this team’s athleticism and fast-tempo. After watching the Wildcats play for over an hour, it’s clear he wasn’t kidding.

With junior Taylor Murray running point, she drives the offense with a speed this team simply didn’t have last season.

Mitchell raved about Murray’s “elite speed” during his press conference, calling her one of the “great weapons in the country.” Additionally, she’s taking on a larger leadership role, helping patch the hole Makayla Epps left behind.

“She’s just really embraced her role,” teammate Alyssa Rice said of Murray. “She’s becoming more vocal. She’s a quiet player and just naturally leads by example, but I think now she’s taking the step in becoming a more vocal leader and helping the younger players come along as well.”

And while her leadership skills may have taken time to develop, her speed did not.

“My speed just comes natural,” Murray said. “That’s just something I try to improve on each and every year: just getting faster or changing direction.”

Alysaa Rice impressed

After a season in which she dramatically improved her game, the senior is stepping into her new-found leadership role – on and off the court.

“That’s one thing we talked to Coach about early in the season – just accepting that leadership role,” Rice said. “I think we’ve done a nice job of just coming together and helping the younger players out and accepting that coaching role as well as players.”

In addition to her team-leading abilities, Mitchell touched on Rice’s improvements on the court, specifically around the rim. Throughout practice today, the senior showed off this increased physicality, hustling for rebounds and getting physical under the basket.

“We’ve been working on it all summer. We’ve just been doing a lot more team-oriented stuff. Just going against a player constantly when we do 5-on-5 things. As a senior now, [physicality] is just something I really have to emphasize. It’s something that’s really on my mind.”

Expectations are high

After finishing last season tied for third in the SEC (22-11 on the season; 11-5 in conference play), this year’s team is determined to improve their record this year – and they’ve got the expectations to prove it.

We’re winning a championship,” Maci Morris said. “We’ve got to lead the team and make sure everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing because we want to win.”

Coach Mitchell agreed.

“Oh, we’re going to go for it. We’re going to go for an SEC title and an SEC tournament title and a Final Four and a National Championship. That’s what we’re going to aspire to.”

Like Mitchell reiterated numerous times during today’s press conference, this team is going to have to work to get to where they want to be.

“You have to be realistic: are any of those things that I’m telling you just going to fall out of the sky and be given to us? No, we’re going to have to go after it. But that’s the pursuit.”


This is a very young team, and it’s clear the pieces are still coming together. Statistically speaking, both sides of the ball will suffer – at least initially – in the absence of last year’s record-breaking seniors, Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator. Coach Mitchell and the players are optimistic – but that’s often the case on Media Day. Although the practice was strong, fans won’t get a real chance to analyze this new UK Hoops team and how they fit together until their first game of the season: November 5 at 7 p.m. in Memorial Coliseum.


@MaggieDavisKSR


Sights and Sounds from UK Hoops Media Day

Sights and Sounds from UK Hoops Media Day

UK Athletics

It’s the most wonderful time of they year! Big Blue Madness is only a few days away and today was one of my personal favorite days, UK Hoops Media Day! Yes, that’s right, we’ve made it – it’s basketball season y’all!

Maggie and I spent our afternoon listening to Coach Matthew Mitchell (read her post on what he said here), watching the girls practice and talking to the players. Here are some quick sights and sounds from today’s festivities!

I was exhausted just watching them practice.

Junior Taylor Murray talks about her role on the team.

Senior Alyssa Rice talks about her physicality this season.

Senior Mackenzie Cann talks about the team attitude and losing Epps and Akhator.

So there you have it. Your first look at this year’s UK Hoops team! Maggie Davis (@maggiedavisKSR), KSR newcomer Karly Walker, and I (@savannahpattKSR)  will be bringing you all your coverage this season! So follow along, it should be a fun one!

Oh, and here’s one last close up of Matthew Mitchell rocking some trendy mesh leggings. I for one, can’t wait to see his BBM performance!


UK athletics

Four quick hits from Matthew Mitchell’s first press conference of the season

UK athletics

While the football team may have a week off, the women’s basketball team is in full gear. UK’s annual Media Day is taking place today, beginning with a press conference by head coach Matthew Mitchell. We’ll have plenty of notes from the open practice and player interviews coming your way later, but for now, here’s what you need to know from Coach Mitchell’s presser:

Adjusting to life without Epps, Akhator

There are a lot of aspects of this team that will change in the absence of Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator, who both graduated last season. But Mitchell, for one, is not worried about the “basketball aspects.”

“I think I miss the personal part of it. You miss those relationships – those were two terrific young people,” Mitchell said of Epps and Akhator. “But the basketball part… I’ve never been one to be real upset about that part. They come here to try and get better as people and players, and you try to pour in as many good things as you can as a coach. And then it’s on to the next year.”

This team is going to play FAST

Last year’s team was a shooting team, led primarily by Epps and Akhator with strong contributions from then-sophomore Maci Morris. This year’s defining characteristic? Speed. Mitchell spoke on this, saying Kentucky spent this summer building a strong base for a fast-paced season.

“If you look over the ten previous years, it’s been more up-tempo than not,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s what we believe will be the best way for this team to play.”

And if it’s not?

“Clearly there’ve been times when I’ve wanted to do certain things, and the team was better at others,” Mitchell said. “I will always make the adjustment to benefit the team. “

This year’s identity:

If he said it once, he said it a million times: speed, quickness, athleticism.

“I believe the identity is going to be hustle, quickness, speed, athleticism,” Mitchell said. “Try to force the other team to be uncomfortable and make some mistakes.”

With six players who have never seen time in a Kentucky uniform before, it will be a process to get all 14 players to mesh. The team has four freshmen, Tatyana Wyatt, Kameron Roach, KeKe McKinney and Dorie Harrison, one junior college transfer, Amanda Paschal, plus Ogechi Anyagaligbo, a junior who did not play last season because of NCAA transfer rules. We’ll take a more in-depth look at each of the newbies later, but one commonality is obvious: pure athleticism.

Of the new players, the average height is just over 5-foot-9. But that’s factoring in the two new guards, who bring the average way down: Paschal is listed at 5-foot-7 and Roach comes in at 5-foot-six. The forwards are each listed at over six feet.

“I think those six players really inject some depth, some athleticism, some size. We added four players that… have great length. All of them are athletic. All of them have different gifts. Our two guards are explosive and can do things.”

What we can expect at Big Blue Madness

The head coach has become a staple at the annual event, and, thankfully, this year will be no different. Although he didn’t give any hints toward what his performance will include, he did promise there will be dancing.

“Once a year, I have to call my parents and apologize. Every Saturday morning after Big Blue Madness: ‘Mom, Dad, I did it again, I embarrassed the family,'” Mitchell said. “It’ll be another horrific two-and-a-half minutes while I’m out there. Somehow, someway, people enjoy that. I still don’t get it, but we’ll be ready to roll. Don’t you worry about that.”

In case you’ve forgotten, here’s how Mitchell introduced his team at last year’s Madness:


@MaggieDavisKSR


@ThatEppsKidd25

Makayla Epps got her first professional buckets last night

@ThatEppsKidd25

Former Cat Makayla Epps scored her first professional baskets Saturday night against the Minnesota Lynx in a 100-74 blowout.

Epps took control late in the fourth quarter to cap the Sky’s night and send them to the century mark.

To make the night even more special, Epps’ dad Anthony was able to be in attendance tonight to watch his daughter reach a milestone.

Big things are going to happen for this one.


@KentuckyWBB

UK Hoops helps build a home for Habitat for Humanity

@KentuckyWBB

What did you do on Saturday? The Kentucky women’s basketball team spent time volunteering for Habitat for Humanity.

This summer is a great time for college sports teams to do some good. With only workouts going on, teams have a lot of free time to give back to the community.

The UK Hoops’ team used their free time on Saturday to help build a home for Habitat for Humanity.

@KentuckyWBB

@KentuckyWBB

Not only are the players helping a family in need, but they are also getting to know each other better, especially the new players. What better way to do that than painting walls?

Habitat for Humanity has been something on my list to do for years, and after seeing this I think it might be time to sign up.

Lexington Habitat for Humanity 


@KentuckyWBB

NBA and WNBA 2017 Draft nights historic for both Kentucky programs

@KentuckyWBB

Since the beginning of the Calipari era, the NBA Draft night has become like an added holiday for Kentucky fans.

It always seems like the draft is historic in some way for men’s side of the table, but this year they weren’t the only ones.

For the women’s basketball program, center Evelyn Akhator became the highest WNBA draft pick in program history as the number three overall pick by the Dallas Wings. A record previously held by A’dia Mathies who was the 10th pick in 2013.

History happened again 30 picks later as Makayla Epps was selected by the Chicago Sky. Before this year, two Cats had never been selected in the same WNBA draft.

Last night was obviously a huge night for Kentucky’s program as the newest NBA Cats just added on to already record-breaking numbers. For instance: all 21 one-and-done’s at Kentucky have done in the first round, Calipari has more former players (24) in the NBA than all other Kentucky coaches behind (23) and finally, for the third time in program history, Kentucky had three lottery picks, more than any other school. 

Not too shabby y’all, not too shabby.

 

@haleysimpKSR


UK Hoops’ assistant coach signs contract extension

UK Athletics

Matthew Mitchell announced on Thursday that Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer Lin Dunn signed a contract extension for the 2017-18 season.

“I am thrilled that Lin is returning for another year,” Mitchell said. “The contributions she has and will continue to make in our program are immense. Like all of us, Lin is focused on helping Kentucky be the premier environment for young women to come develop into the very best students, players and citizens they can be. It is an honor to work by her side every day.”

Dunn joined the Kentucky women’s basketball staff as an assistant coach in May 2016, coming out of retirement to continue her coaching career. Dunn spent 10 years coaching in the WNBA and over 25 years coaching at the collegiate level.

“It has been great working with Matthew, Kyra, Niya and Amber and I am really looking forward to us continuing to work together next season,” Dunn said. “The great thing about our staff is that we all have similar core values that make it easy for us to work together. I want to continue to help them build a program that wins championships and invests in its players. I love the Big Blue Nation and cannot wait to be back on the sidelines.”

This is the first off-season with no assistant coaching turnover since the 2011-12 season.

According to UK Athletics, this women’s basketball staff has 93 years of coaching, 264 All-Conference honors, 69 All-America honors, 187 professional players and 237 academic honors.

 


@wnbachicagosky

Makayla Epps makes 2017 Chicago Sky roster

@wnbachicagosky

@wnbachicagosky

Makayla Epps is officially a member of the Chicago Sky. Epps is one of three rookies to make the roster for the 2017 season opener.

Epps was picked 33rd overall by the Sky in the third round of the WNBA Draft in April. She will continue to wear the #25.

@ThatEppsKidd25

@ThatEppsKidd25

Epps begins her WNBA career tomorrow against the Minnesota Lynx at 6:00 p.m. CT. The game will be broadcast locally on The U Too and streamed on WNBA League Pass.

I know all of Big Blue Nation is ready to watch Epps ball out in the WNBA.

PLAYER POS FROM YRS
Imani Boyette C Texas 1
Jessica Breland F North Carolina 5
Shayla Cooper F Ohio State R
Kahleah Copper G Rutgers 1
Stefanie Dolson F-C Connecticut 3
Makayla Epps G Kentucky R
Keisha Hampton F DePaul 1
Amber Harris F Xavier 3
Tori Jankoska G Michigan State R
Cheyenne Parker F Middle Tennessee State 2
Cappie Pondexter G Rutgers 11
*Allie Quigley G DePaul 8
*Courtney Vandersloot G Gonzaga 6
Tamera Young F James Madison 9
*players have not reported yet

 


Looking ahead to tonight’s WBNA draft

Looking ahead to tonight’s WBNA draft

Screen Shot 2017-04-13 at 4.11.40 PM

Photo by UK Athletics

Tonight, two dreams will become a reality in New York.

After seeing their season end too soon, Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator are looking to become the WBNA’s next stars following tonight’s draft.

Both players are poised to go in the second round according to DraftSite.com with each round only having 12 picks. Epps is projected to go as the first pick in second round as the 13th pick to the Connecticut Sun, while Akhator is projected to go as the 16th pick to Connecticut as well.

However, SB Nation is looking at Akhator potentially being an upset and going as the fourth overall pick to the Dallas Wings.

Being second round picks, both players may have to prove themselves to get on a roster to begin next season, but both players can make a splash in the upcoming years.

Tune into the draft at 7 p.m. on ESPN2.


photo by UK athletics

Makayla Epps’ and Evelyn Akhator’s possible positions in WNBA draft

seniors2

With all the talk of the men’s team’s season ending and countless conversations about which (if any) of this year’s starters will return (cough, cough: probably none of them), Kentucky’s women’s team often gets overlooked. After a season that went better than expected after last year’s mass exodus, the Wildcats (22-11) ended their run with a loss to Ohio State in the second round of the tournament. Although the game ended in defeat, one thing was the same as it had been nearly every game that season: the two seniors gave outstanding performances. 

Makayla Epps, who played all 40 minutes, led the team in scoring, ending her night with 21 points and her career as a Kentucky Wildcat with 1,790 points, making her the fifth highest scorer in program history. Evelyn Akhator messed around and wound up with her 18th double-double of the season. She finished with a staggering 23 rebounds plus 14 points and four blocks.

So what’s next for these seniors? Hopefully, the WNBA. Current projections have Epps going in the first round and Akhator during the start of the second. Here’s a quick breakdown of some various opinions:

Draft Site:

Epps: No. 12 pick – Minnesota

Akhator: No. 15 pick – Seattle

Prospects Nation:

Epps: No. 17 pick

Akhator: No. 24 pick

CBS Sports:

Epps: not mentioned (which is weird, right?)

Akhator: No. 11


Something else worth noting: Not a single Connecticut player is slotted in the first round in any of these mock drafts. So, just in case you had any doubts, it looks like UConn will continue to dominate women’s basketball next season.

The draft date has been set for April 13, with the first-round picks beginning at 7 p.m. ET. The first round will be broadcast by ESPN2, while the second and third rounds – set to air at 8 p.m. – will be covered by ESPNU.


Photo By UK Athletics

UK Hoops Falls to Ohio State

Photo By UK Athletics

Photo By UK Athletics

We now interrupt your Kentucky vs Wichita State pregame prep to bring you some very important UK Hoops coverage: UK Hoops lost to Ohio State82-68  and was knocked out of the tournament today.

Once again, it was another impressive game for seniors Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator. Epps had 21 points including shooting six in a row in the third to cut the lead and Akhator had her 18th double-double with 14 points and 23 rebounds (a season high for rebounds).

Ohio State controlled the pace of the game, mainly due to Junior superstar, Kelsey Mitchell. Dubbed by Ohio State media as “the greatest Ohio State basketball player ever” Mitchell’s fast pace was a match the Cats could not control. UK transfer Linnae Harper, had 12 points. Since transferring from UK, Harper is familiar with the teammates and style of play the Cats use – this definitely helped Ohio State. UK Hoops trailed the whole game despite a heartbreaking effort in the last few minutes.

It’s been one heck of a season for UK Hoops. I’ll miss our seniors and covering this team.

Go Cats!


Photo By UK Athletics

UK Hoops beats Belmont in First Round Game

Photo By UK Athletics

Photo By UK Athletics

UK HOOPS IS MOVING ON TO THE SECOND ROUND. The #4 seed beat 13-seeded Belmont today in a close 73-70 game.

It was a tough game in Memorial for the Cats, but the home court advantage helped. You could feel the electricity in Memorial throughout the whole game. Yeah, it’s definitely March in Kentucky.

“Playing here again,  it’s like senior night part two and Sunday will be senior night part three,” said Makayla Epps.

The Cats came out hot with Epps getting a three right after the tip. The Senior Superstar played all 40 minutes and scored 30 points.  She shot 4-of-5 in the first quarter and ended shooting 11-of-18 overall. Evelyn Akhator also had an impressive game with 22 points and 10 rebounds ( her 17th double-double if you’re counting at home) . But, despite this impressive effort – Belmont didn’t go away.

“We felt some four seed pressure, our team didn’t want to lose today. We did what we had to do to win,” said Coach Matthew Mitchell.

Belmont fought hard. They out-rebounded and out-scored the Cats in the paint. Number 23 Kylee Smith scored a whopping 18 points in the first half and Kentucky couldn’t answer. In the third quarter, the Cats went on a 13-0 run but, Belmont got hot and back-to-back-to-back threes.

The game came down to free throws. With 37 seconds left, the Cats led 66-63. Maci Morris went to the line three times in the last seconds of the game and made all but one of her free throws. It was 71-68 with 10 seconds left. Belmont is known as one of the best three point shooting teams in the nation but, they couldn’t tie up the game.

“I just didn’t want to miss. Epps told me they would go in. My teammates have a lot of faith in me,” said Maci Morris.

UK Hoops will play either Western Kentucky or Ohio State on Sunday in Memorial for the second round or as Makayla Epps called it “senior night part three.”

 


UK Hoops wins and advances

UK Hoops wins and advances

KSR-0145

Kentucky’s women’s basketball team won its first-rounder today in Lexington, defeating Belmont in one that was much closer than Big Blue Nation anticipated.

Belmont had the ball down three with three seconds to go, but the Wildcats escaped with the narrow 73-70 victory.

The Wildcats will host the second-round game on Sunday against the No. 5 Ohio State/No. 12 Western Kentucky winner.

More to come from this one…