UK women’s comeback falls short in SEC semifinals


Kentucky Wildcat guard Makayla Epps shoots a jump shot during the third quarter of the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs on Thursday, February 23, 2017 at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, KY. Photo by Addison Coffey | Staff.

Chris Leach

With 5:09 remaining in the third quarter of the SEC tournament semifinals, it looked like the UK women’s basketball team would fall to South Carolina for the second year in a row, as the Cats trailed by 13.

South Carolina had been on fire up until that point, as the Gamecocks shot 65 percent in the first half. The post players for South Carolina were responsible for the damage, as 32 of USC’s 47 first half points came from the paint.

However, the Cats would close the final 5:09 of the third quarter on a 13-3 run, cutting South Carolina’s lead to three. The Gamecocks did not hit a single field goal in those final five minutes of the quarter, as the three points South Carolina scored came from the free throw line.

What made the comeback more impressive was the Cats were without one of their top players, Taylor Murray. Murray was injured in the quarterfinals after running into a screen at full speed.

Without Murray, the Cats needed players to step up, and just like fans have seen all season, the senior duo of Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator were there to pick up the load.

“They rose to the occasion,” Matthew Mitchell said of Epps and Akhator. “They’ve done a lot for us, so proud of those seniors.”

Throughout the fourth quarter, the Cats kept the intensity up that sparked the comeback. USC’s lead never grew larger than six, because Akhator and Epps kept scoring buckets when the Cats needed it the most.

With 4:13 left in the game, the Cats came within two points of South Carolina’s lead, but that was the closest UK would come. The Gamecocks later went on an 8-0 to take an 11-point lead with less than a minute remaining.

The Gamecocks were not doing anything special to spark the run; the Cats just could not knock down shots.

“We needed a couple of shots to fall that were really great shots,” Mitchell said. “We really did some nice things that created open shots, I just hate they didn’t go in.”

The Cats kept fighting, but with 19 seconds left, SEC player of the year A’ja Wilson put UK’s hopes of a comeback away for good, as she knocked down two free throws to keep USC’s lead in the double-digits. South Carolina would go on to win 89-77.

The Cats never led in the game, but showed tremendous fight, and that intensity from UK is what gave the Cats a shot to win in the first place.

“Everybody showed fight,” Epps said. “We got scrappy after some loose balls, people laid their body on the line, I feel like this team never gave up the whole game.”

Epps finished with a season-high 31 points off 12-26 shooting. This is the senior’s final time playing in the SEC tournament, and fans at Bon Secours Wellness Arena knew she gave it all she had.

Akhator had another impressive game, scoring 24 points and grabbing 11 rebounds, her sixteenth double-double of the season. This comes after Akhator scored 23 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the quarterfinal game against Alabama.

The Cats did not leave Greenville, South Carolina with the SEC tournament trophy like they had hoped, but their tournament run was a good learning experience for the remainder of the season. The Cats have two weeks to prepare for the NCAA tournament, and Epps is optimistic as the tournament approaches.

“We’re going to get back to it, focus on Kentucky, what we do best,” Epps said. “Regardless of where they put us in the tournament or who we got to face, I’m confident in my tea, and our abilities.”