Last yearâ€™s womenâ€™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 â€“ like when they fell to Louisville 71-73 in overtime â€“ but they also had some amazing moments â€“ 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 didnâ€™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, itâ€™s over, and itâ€™s time to move forward. Just ask Coach Mitchell, who doesnâ€™t even remember the final record from last season.
â€œWhatever our record wasâ€¦ 22 and whatever, I donâ€™t remember the record. But Iâ€™ll never forget that team,â€ Mitchell said. â€œI forget the records and maybe the scores of the games overall, but I wonâ€™t forget that team.â€
(In case you were wondering, their final record was 22-11).
â€œItâ€™s going to be an interesting journey,â€ Mitchell said of this yearâ€™s team. â€œA lot of statistical things that weâ€™ll have to replace with the loss of Makayla and Evelyn. And thatâ€™s really evident to everyone.â€
First things first, the team has to fill the hole at point. Epps primarily ran this position last season, even though it wasnâ€™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 thatâ€™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.
â€œWhat a fantastic improvement we saw from the start of her sophomore year until the end, and thatâ€™s carried on,â€ Mitchell said. â€œWe have one of the great weapons in the country to be an up-tempo, fast-paced team when you have arguably the fastestâ€¦ clearly [Murray] has elite-level speed.â€
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:
â€” Alyssa Rice (@lyss_45) October 19, 2017
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 freshmanâ€™s not going to step in and replace Makayla Epps; a freshmanâ€™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.â€
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.
â€œWe have no idea what our ceiling is, so why put any limits on that?” Mitchell said. “Why say, â€˜well weâ€™d like to go 20-10 and be a No. 9 seed in the tournament â€“ thatâ€™d be a really great year for us.â€™ Thatâ€™s never been what weâ€™ve done.â€
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.