As any Kentucky fan knows, Senior Night is always special at UK, and one cannot help but be teary-eyed hearing “My Old Kentucky Home” being sung as the seniors stand at mid-court with their families. When the seniors are Evelyn Akhator and Makayla Epps, two of the returning six Wildcats this season, it’s even more special.
It was not going to be an easy task to finish the regular home season with a victory, especially given the fact the Mississippi State team they were facing was sitting in first place in the SEC and ranked #3 in the nation. The Bulldogs entered the game with an impressive 27-1 record (13-1), with their lone defeat coming at the hands of South Carolina. There was no question this would be a huge win for the Cats if they could pull it out.
From the opening tip, it was obvious Kentucky was determined to give Akhator and Epps the sendoff they deserved. The Bulldogs were known for forcing turnovers, and opponents had averaged over 20 turnovers per game. But it was the Dogs with 22 miscues Thursday night while the Cats only lost the ball 9 times. It was the Cats who remained poised, even when shots weren’t falling. It was UK that battled back every time MSU managed to take the lead. It was UK that found that extra little something in the gas tank when the game went to overtime. It was UK that, in spite of being the underdog, came out on top 78-75 after Epps got the biggest rebound of the night and then had the put back to seal the win. As MSU coach Vic Schaefer said, “Epps was the killer.”
That shot brought back memories of the game against the Bulldogs 2 years ago when Epps was the killer then as well. When Makayla was asked about the similarities between the two games, she noted:
“Oh yeah, as soon as the shot came off. And you know, Vivians’, it came off of her fingertips. It’s so crazy, it’s the same exact, basically almost the same exact play, the same exact shot, and the same exact outcome. It’s just crazy how things happen. I only had two rebounds and that was one of them.”
After having scored only 4 points the first half, Epps came out on a mission in the second half adding 18 points to finish with 22, along with 2 huge rebounds and 5 assists. Akhator also had a memorable evening, ending her night with 27 points and 16 rebounds. But you can’t forget the key contributions of Taylor Murray who added 14 points and was perhaps the key to disrupting MSU’s offense. When Mitchell was asked about Murray’s importance, he replied:
“She’s becoming quite the floor general. She’s starting our offense and defense. She’s all over the place making plays and pressuring the ball. When she came to us, she didn’t talk very much. I can’t get her to stop talking now during the game. I try to get her to sit down and rest for a second, then she calls me back over to the sideline to talk to her to make sure we’re doing what we need to do. She’s doing a great job as a floor general. Really proud of her.”
The win almost certainly assured the Wildcats a first-round bye in the upcoming SEC tournament as they are now securely in 3rd place with an 11-4 mark in league play.
For the 5,244 fans in attendance, it was a very special night. They did their part to keep the Cats motivated and energized. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it louder in Memorial. What did the crowd’s support mean to the team? Taylor Murray said,
“The fans were very important to us. Every time we scored they were just a booster for us to keep coming back and just getting stops on defense and just running at them.”
After all the turmoil surrounding the program last spring, this victory was especially sweet. As Epps said after the game,
“People count us down and out whenever we went through all of that turmoil last season after the season was over. Kids leaving left and right, people thought the six we had remaining that we couldn’t get the job done. I kind of took that on the chin and I told them that’s disrespectful in a sense.”
So it was a perfect ending to a Senior Night, a night that is always so special. Coach Mitchell was emotional as he spoke of how much this win meant:
” For tonight, I think for me, the best feeling for us is Makayla and Evelyn will always have tonight. You only had one chance at it and now that they have it you can’t take that from them ever. To have that moment with them at half court with just a jam-packed building. Just thank the fans for coming out and honoring those kids. That will be one we don’t soon forget if we ever do. I don’t think we ever will.”
Something else Evelyn and Makayla will always have is the memory of the Senior Night ceremony. Flowers, family, and hugs from their coach as the fans cheered to show their appreciation is a moment like none other. For Makayla, it was extra special as she shared in this moment 20 years ago with her father, legendary Wildcat Anthony Epps. When I asked her how much it meant to have him on the court with her Thursday night, she smiled and said,
“Yeah, you know, I told everybody that asked me I wasn’t going to cry, and I almost cried. There was a whole lot of people out there and I feel like I couldn’t cry and then go play my best basketball. But just to share a moment with him, same scenario just 20 years later. I am going to collage those pictures and have them in my house wherever I live in the future. They will be on all social media sites, just really special to me. We will always have that; nobody can take that from us.”
And nobody can ever take this great victory away from the “remaining 6.”
— Cameron Mills Show (@cameronradio) February 23, 2017
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