History hangs heavy in the air on Senior Night at Kentucky, whether or it is men’s or women’s basketball. A medley of events contributes the richness of the occasion: the hoops with the player’s faces on them, the traditional singing of “My Old Kentucky Home,” or the lack of dry eyes; Senior Day stands as one of the primaries of examples of what makes Kentucky basketball so unique.
Two extraordinary young women played their final games in Memorial Coliseum tonight. Both took contrasting journeys to Lexington.
Evelyn Akhator grew up in Nigeria and came to Kentucky from the junior college ranks. Makayla Epps was born into UK royalty. She is the eldest daughter of former Kentucky point guard Anthony Epps and one of the greatest players in the history of Bluegrass high school hoops.
However different their arrivals, they both will exit the program as decorated and beloved players.
Just as they have all season, the short-staffed and green behind the ears Wildcats leaned on the seniors when they needed them the most.
Facing one of the stiffest challenges of the season in the no.3 Mississippi State Bulldogs, Epps and Akhator delivered down the stretch and in overtime to give the no. 22 Cats the 78-75 victory, and with the win Kentucky moves to 20-8 (11-4) on the year.
The Seniors Were Clutch
With the game knotted at 75 and under 30 seconds to play in the extra period, Makayla Epps drove into the lane and spotted Mackenzie Cann open in the right corner. Cann's 3-point clanked off the iron and right back into Epps' hands. She put up a contested layup in traffic and found paydirt with eight ticks left on the clock.
It was not just the game winning shot that made Epps last home game a performance to remember either. The Lebanon native, along with Taylor Murray, befuddled the Bulldogs with their speed in the open court. Epps sliced through the MSU defense, not always with the greatest of ease, and scored the majority of her 22 points in the paint.
Epps finished 8-of-18 from the floor, hit her only 3-point attempt, and was 5-of-8 from the foul line. She also had two rebounds and five assists.
After being held in check for most of the game, Akhator picked the final 15 minutes as her time to shine. She scored 14 of Kentucky 24 points in 4th quarter and five of 11 in OT. When Kentucky needed a big bucket, their lioness in the paint delivered.
Akhator was 11-of-20 from the field and 5-of-6 from the charity stripe. She grabbed 17 rebounds to go along with her 27 points.
The Margin Between Victory and Defeat Was Razor Thin
An examination of the box score reveals just how tight this contest was throughout 45 minutes of play.
Mississippi State outscored Kentucky by a single point in the 1st quarter, 19-18. The two teams were deadlocked at 12 in the 2nd and 13 in the 3rd. UK's 24 to 23 and 11 to 8 edge in the final frames was just enough to edge ahead.
The Bulldogs shot better as a team, 48 percent on 28-of-54 attempts to UK's 41 percent on 28-of-68 attempts. They also hit 7-of-17 3's.
Kentucky made up the difference by turning 22 MSU miscues into 16 points and winning the battle in the paint 42-28.
The Victory is Proof of Progress
Entering into the game, Kentucky was 2-3 against Top 25 opponents and 0-2 in games decided in overtime.
Even in victories, the Wildcats struggled with concentration and fatigue in critical moments of tight contests. Repeated failure seemed to have put a mental cap on the Cats in such situations.
Now with the NCAA Tournament looming, Kentucky finally demonstrated they have the fitness and acumen in between the ears to potentially make a deep run in March.
The team and coaching staff deserve a round of applause for their toughness and commitment to hard work in the face of adversity early in the season.