It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Makayla Epps wanted her Senior Night celebration to keep going far longer than Sunday’s “part 3.” At first glance, it seemed almost certain that Mitchell’s Cats would get to their 6th Sweet 16 in the last 8 years. But a feisty Ohio State team came out with guns blazing and ended Kentucky’s hopes of advancing to next week’s regional being played in Rupp Arena.
OSU was led by junior guard Kelsey Mitchell who scored 10 points in the first quarter, and UK was fortunate to be trailing by only 4, 20-16 as the 1st period ended. “I don’t know what happened there at the beginning; nice session this morning; I don’t know if we were nervous,” Mitchell said. “I asked them at the first media timeout if they were nervous,” but there seemed to be no real answer to the Cats’ cold shooting.
UK’s woes continued in the 2nd quarter as they could only manage a paltry 25% on field goal attempts while the Buckeyes torched the nets at a 50% clip. “Mentally, all of us got back on our heels, ” Mitchell continued. “I don’t know if it was Ohio State’s hot shooting that (did that). We just lacked poise in the 1st half.” That lack of poise led to UK heading to the locker room down 15 points, 46-31.
Former Cat Linnae Harper who transferred from Kentucky to Ohio State in the fall of 2015 made several key plays in the 1st half and tallied 6 points, 4 assists, and 4 rebounds. Did Mitchell have any emotions seeing his former player on the court? “All of my effort and emotion has gone into this team. I hope this puts a close to last year. I don’t invest any time in emotion for players who chose not to be here. I wish Linnae the best, but my focus and emotions are with the 2016-17 Wildcats.” Mitchell went on to praise Harper’s talent as well as give OSU their due.
“I thought we were really low energy in the first half and we just didn’t make Ohio State work very hard, but credit them. We tried to start the game bothering and trapping (Kelsey Mitchell), but she’s just so explosive. Some of the shots she made were tough shots.”
As the 2nd half began, it appeared the Cats were going to face the same shooting woes that plagued them in the first half and just over a minute into the 3rd quarter, UK found themselves down by 19 points. Just when it seemed the game was over, Makayla Epps started a furious rally and scored 6 straight points, prompting an OSU timeout.
After a few exchanges of baskets, the Cats had another mini-spurt and ended the 3rd quarter trailing by only 8 points. Kentucky rode that momentum into the final quarter, eventually cutting the deficit to a single point, 64-65 at the 6:03 mark. The Cats could never get closer, though and missed their final 9 field goal attempts, eventually falling to the Buckeyes 82-68.
Mitchell was able to pull Epps and Akhator out for the final 13 seconds to give the Kentucky fans an opportunity to show their appreciation for the seniors. Epps, who finished the game with 21 points and 4 assists was visibly emotional and stood bent over, hands on her knees slightly away from the bench until the final buzzer sounded. She then rejoined her teammates and they all stood, arms around one another as they honored the band one final time this year.
To say it was an emotional post-game press conference for both Mitchell and his seniors would be an understatement. All were fighting back tears, with Akhator losing the battle at one point, prompting Mitchell to hand her a tissue while she took a moment to compose herself. As for Epps, when asked about her time at Kentucky (see full remarks below), she wasn’t the only one in tears as several audible sniffles were heard from those in the media.
For Mitchell, while the season didn’t go on as long as he had hoped, it was a success nonetheless. Perhaps it could be best summed up in what Mitchell thought about Epps and Akhator and the legacy that they will leave with UK:
“Well, I’ve said this before. I’m so grateful for those two because they’ve taught me as much of anything that I’ve taught them. They gave me, and all of us here who have worked hard to build a good program that has integrity and develops people and isn’t just about winning games. We also develop people. It looked very unusual last spring. To go through all of that and hear those two talk about their experience, it lets you know what Kentucky is about. And what all of us are about. They didn’t just mention me. They mentioned their teammates and what kind of young women they are. No advancement in this tournament, no trophy we could’ve won can replace the gift that they gave me, which is that honesty, hard work, and discipline still work. Being in a program where the expectation for you is to be coachable, accountable, resilient still works.”
So weep no more, Wildcat fans. It was a disappointing end to the tournament, but this season brought us so much joy and excitement. The Returnables (the 6 players that remained with UK during the mass exodus) along with the new players that joined the squad truly epitomized what it was like to be ONE team, playing with ONE purpose and with ONE goal. Mitchell is correct: this is far greater than any trophy they could have brought home.
Akhator’s comments on her time at UK:
“I only spent two years here and it’s been the best two years of my life. I’m really close to the coaches but Coach Mitchell treated me like a daughter and I was able to open up to him. I don’t open up, I usually keep things to myself. He was able to get through to me which made much more comfortable with him and my teammates. I became so close to my teammates and I really opened up to them. Every time I was down they always knew something was wrong with me and they would try to talk to me about it and just get me to let it go. It has been a huge impact in my life and they became family to me. My two years here has been like four years not just in Kentucky but it’s like I have been here forever. Honestly, Kentucky is like my home away from home and I will never forget that.”
Epps’ comments on her time at UK:
“I don’t even know if I can put it into words. First off, I want to thank Coach Mitchell for giving me the opportunity to come here on an athletic scholarship. Those are not given, you have to earn them. A lot of credit to him, he has done a great job here at the University of Kentucky. My four years here were not easy. It was not just a joy ride the whole time I was here. I had some highs and lows, moments where I didn’t know if I was coming or going. He would take time out of his life, busy days, take time away from his family to sit up in his office and talk with me one-on-one, getting to know me and that is the type of coaches you need, the type that really get to know their players. Then my teammates especially this year, they made my senior year the best year here. It’s not the team I started out with but it is the team I finished with. Like Coach Mitchell said even though we didn’t get the win today, we’re a team. We made Memorial Coliseum rock today and I will never forget the players in the locker room. Maci came up to me a minute ago and hugged me telling me that I’m the best teammate she ever had and one of the best people she’s ever been around. It really means a lot to me. It’s a lot more than just basketball for me, basketball isn’t forever for me but just to know that I have made a huge impact on so many people’s lives during my four years here means the world to me.”
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