Tennessee too tough for UK Hoops

Kentucky forward Jelled Sidney (12) shoots the ball during the first half of the Kentucky Hoops versus Tennessee Vols at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky., on Thursday, January 29, 2015. Photo by Caleb Gregg

By Kevin Erpenbeck

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Two points. That’s all that separates UK’s recent losses to Tennessee; 71-70 in last year’s SEC Championship game, and 73-72 on Thursday.

For sophomore Makayla Epps, there’s no worse feeling than losing those kinds of games.

“Losing by one – I’d probably rather lose by 25 than lose by one,” Epps said. “With 25, you have no chance. But with one, you’re right there.”

No. 10 UK was better than “right there” during portions of the game. The Cats led 31-25 at halftime and were up by five points with less than 10 minutes to play.

But No. 6 Tennessee edged out UK in the closing minutes of a back-and-forth second half to break the Cats’ streak of 13-straight home wins.

“Tennessee made more plays than we did and played harder in the second half,” said head coach Matthew Mitchell. “We didn’t play any defense in the second half and got beat.”

The Cats held the Lady Volunteers to 36 percent from the floor and forced 13 turnovers in the first half, but watched as Tennessee soared to 60 field goal percentage in the second half, scoring 28 of its points in the paint.

Tennessee led UK by two possessions twice in the final two minutes of the game. But every time the Lady Vols looked to close out the game, Epps marched it down the court and made a three-pointer to help her team claw back. The 5-foot-10 point guard scored 20 of her 23 points on the night in the second half, including 10 points in the final four minutes.

In the end though, Epps was left crouching down in disappointment near the basket after the Cats failed to score the go-ahead basket in their final four possesions.

“It was more of a ‘dang.’ Like, a ‘shoot,’” Epps said.

Despite the difficult loss to an archrival, Epps added that she sees positive things for her team going forward because of how they played against a Top-10 team.

“We are getting better,” Epps said. “I see it in everybody. We’re going to look at this film and see the little things we could have done right, and then progress on.”

UK will face Tennessee again on Feb. 15 at Thompson-Boling Arena, where UK edged out a rare road win against the Lady Vols last year.

But until that game, the two close losses will be the ones that stay fresh in the Cats’ minds, said senior guard’s Bria Goss.

“It’s really boiling inside,” Goss said. “We just have to get over this hump.”