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Takeaways and highlights from UK Hoops’ 82-66 opening win over Miami

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UK picked up a big win over a top-15 squad.

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Lexington Regional-Kentucky vs Washington Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Miami Hurricanes head coach Katie Meier returned this verdict after her team’s opening season loss to the Kentucky Wildcats 82-66 Friday in Memorial Coliseum.

“The more mentally tough team won the game.”

For most of the game, Miami’s tough, veteran team was in striking distance of Kentucky, even when the Wildcats stretched their lead the Hurricanes would pull within a few points, getting as close as four in the final quarter.

However, over the last three minutes, No. 19 UK went on a 15-2 run to put the game away and beat No. 14 Miami.

In his post game comments, Coach Matthew Mitchell credited his team’s hustle, commitment to a recently installed 2-3 zone, and the toughness of reserves like Jessica Hardin for the victory.

Below are several takeaways from the win:

Makayla Epps was ready for primetime in the final quarter. Over the course of her four-year career in Lexington Epps has rightfully gained a reputation as a closer, and with Miami closing the distance fast in the dying minutes, Epps shouldered the load and sparked the Cats to victory. She entered the final ten with an uncharacteristically pedestrian 11 points and finished with a team-high 29 (on 10-of-19 shooting from the floor and 8-of-15 from the charity stripe), to go along with five assists and three rebounds, once the final horn blew. Epps demonstrated her remarkable focus in crunch time, and it rubbed off on her teammates during the game-clinching run. For UK to be successful this season, Epps will have to be the stone the team can lean on, and tonight she did just that.

Evelyn Akhator showcased an entirely different dimension to her game. The senior forward from Lagos, Nigeria is best known for being a terror on the glass and adept at stick backs after an offensive rebound. Tonight against Miami, Akhator stepped back from the paint and let several mid-range jump shots float from her fingertips. More often than naught they resulted in a sweet kiss off the glass. If Akhator continues to move from beyond the interior than it will open up the lane for slashers like Makayla Epps and Taylor Murray, and also spread the court for the plethora of shooters in the Wildcat’s stable. Akhator final stat sheet reads like this: 18 points, ten rebounds, and one assist.

Taylor Murray has the busiest hands Memorial has seen in quite some time. The speedy sophomore accounted for three steals overall, but that does not tell the entire story. At one point in the first-half, Murray had up to six deflections. For a team that will at times have to rely on their defense, Murray’s swipes will be the catalyst for instant offense off of turnovers. Murray finished with eight points and three assists.

Alyssa Rice’s lack of mobility is a liability at this stage in the season. At one point in the third quarter, with Evelyn Akhator on the bench with three fouls, Miami outscored Kentucky 13-6 to cut a nine-point halftime lead to four at 43-39. Many of the baskets during the Hurricanes run came as a result of beating Rice in transition for easy buckets. With little depth in the front court, Matthew Mitchell has little choice but to play the junior center. Hopefully, the problem will correct itself as the year wears on but in November it puts a huge bullseye on the team.

Jessica Hardin and Mackenzie Cann were huge off the bench. Coach Mitchell said that Kentucky would not have won the game without Jessica Hardin. The senior walk-on scored five points and grabbed three rebounds in a gritty performance where relentlessly shot and attacked the basket, especially when the team got off to a slow start in the first quarter. Cann played outstanding defense in the final quarter and finished the game with seven points, seven rebounds, and two assists. With the rest of the bench young and developing, having experienced hands like Cann and Hardin should have a steadying influence when the team needs it.