Thursday, March 24, 2016

Transcript: UK Hoops Head Coach Matthew Mitchell , Janee Thompson , Makayla Epps, Pre #3 UK Hoops vs #7 Washington Sweet 16 ~ 2016 NCAA Women's Tournament Lexington Region Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky Comments

THE MODERATOR: We're joined at the podium by head coach Matthew Mitchell. Questions for Coach?

Q. What kind of opportunity is it to play for a Final Four in front of a home crowd? And is there a little added pressure to that too?

COACH MITCHELL:
 Well, if we play well, it will be a lot more fun for everybody, but the home court didn't do much for us last year versus Dayton, so (home) court doesn't really do it for you. Didn't do much for Arizona State. Didn't do much for Maryland. I mean, you have to play. Would it be exciting for us if we get rolling and playing well? Could we have some added juice in the building because it's us? Of course.

But there is certainly -- we're not looking at pressure right now. We're trying to look at our attitude and our effort, and that's how we try to make it happen for us in the first two rounds, and I thought we really hustled and played hard and responded to adversity and that opportunity on our home court.

I would love to go to a Final Four. That's been a goal of our program and a dream of all of ours, and we believe we're going to do it one day and we hope it's this year. But it won't be because the Rupp Arena floor jumps up and makes any baskets or has -- the building won't get it done for us. The players will, and that's how we're trying to approach this.

Q. What is the status of Makayla Epps? What is the status on her injury and do you expect her to play?

COACH MITCHELL:
 We do expect her to play. She's doing fine. If you sprained an ankle like Janee sprained an ankle before a couple of games, it's not comfortable, but she'll play fine and she'll be able to play and she'll be ready tomorrow night at 7.

Q. (Kelsey) Plum for Washington, does she compare to anybody else you've faced this season and how critical is it to keep her off the foul line? That seems to have kind of been her MO all season.

COACH MITCHELL:
 You know, I've been so focused on trying to get to know her and watch her I haven't really thought about a comparison. I can't think of anybody right off the top of my head. She is a fantastic player. She does so much for their team. What I've noticed is she really keeps them together. They're a really together team. It's a fun thing to watch. Tough to prepare for. They're very, very tough. But there is a togetherness about them that is impressive.

And I really love the way she carries herself on the court in between plays. She just seems like she's always got something positive to say to her teammates it seems like. She would be a fun player to play on the team with. She can handle the ball so well and she is such a smart player that if you don't pay attention to your defensive discipline and your positioning, she can draw some fouls and she can do it off the dribble. She can do it with shot fakes around the basket.

Just a really, really good player. She's the leading scorer in the country for a reason. She's very, very good, and we have tremendous respect for her ability and we're working hard to prepare ourselves the best that we can.

One thing about it: All the things that we value on defense, you're going to need against the Washington team, and that's just giving a great, great effort. An honest effort is going to be important. Give your very best. Starting it all with hustle and hard work is going to be important and discipline. Those are the three things that we really try to build our defense around: honesty, hard work, discipline. They will definitely need -- we'll need to exercise those at our highest level to have a chance in the game.

Q. I think of the 16 first- and second-round sites, Lexington was 12th in attendance. Was that disappointing to you? And what Friday night in terms of crowd support would be successful for you?

COACH MITCHELL:
 Well, I'm never disappointed when people put down their hard-earned money to buy a ticket to a game and show up. I don't know where we ranked attendance wise, but disappointing wouldn't be anywhere in my thought process on what those crowds were like. They were phenomenal crowds. It was a great, great energy in the building, and I would expect that it's going to be a great energy in the building.

We've worked hard the last couple weeks to try to make people aware that the game is here. So it's four fantastic schools. I think it's really some of the best examples of the students that the NCAA has to offer. Great schools. Washington, Stanford, Notre Dame are incredible universities. We are real proud of our university. We believe it's a world-class university. So I think that if people are interested in seeing high-level students that are great athletes compete, this is going to be a great weekend for that. We sold a bunch of tickets so far, and I'm grateful to people. It's always an honor if somebody will pay a ticket price to come watch a team play. So we're excited about the weekend.

Q. It seemed like you did a really great job of keeping your team focused on the task at hand in those first two rounds. Is that still important to you now not to look ahead and stay focused? How are you able to do that, because you did it so well in the first two games?

COACH MITCHELL:
 Well, I think it gets actually easier the further you go. That first weekend's hard. I'm telling you, the first weekend's really hard because everybody, you know, you're looking down the road a little bit. As a coach, I think the first weekend is so tough, especially with how the schedule is constructed for the SEC. We've got a pretty big gap in between when we play an SEC Tournament to the NCAA Tournament. Then everybody in the tournament wants to make it a Sweet 16 round. It's hard to do, it's not easy to do. So I think there is pressure there because the kids want it so much.

When you get to this weekend, it's a very good team you're going to play, and if you don't win Friday, there is nothing to worry about on Sunday. So it's not as difficult as you might think.

Our team has shown a great ability to focus on the task at hand and to really lock in. When I have different friends of mine that come and visit practice, old coaching friends of mine who aren't coaching anymore but come in and watch some practice, all year long they've talked about this is a very focused group. They listen to everything that you say.

And so, look, it will be a real, real challenge. Washington's an outstanding team. They put a lot of pressure on you to score and are just very dynamic offensively.

So this is a tough, tough game. I don't anticipate our team worrying too much about anything but Washington right now. If they do, they'll learn a real hard lesson, real tough lesson, and I think they want to give their very best, and that's what I expect them to do.

Q. Coach, they decided to fly back to Washington last week instead of going from Maryland to here. I guess, how much does that play a factor? I know that you guys played in a regional in I think Spokane or whatever in 2010 or '11. How does that prepare them?

COACH MITCHELL:
 To be honest with you, I haven't given any thought to Washington's travel plans or what they're doing. It won't factor into our game preparation. I know for us, we've tried to use the time that we've had to get familiar with them and they're such a great team and so well coached and play so together that it will be a real tough matchup. We're looking forward to it and have a lot of respect for them.

Q. What is your biggest concern when you look at Washington? What are the things you're going to have to do really well in order to succeed?

COACH MITCHELL:
 Well, you're going to have to, I think, start on the defensive end. You're going to have to be really, really tough. One thing that we tried to talk about for our team in this tournament, we wanted to be the team that it was visible that we were hustling more than our opponent. And you're going to really have to outhustle Washington. They play very hard. They play very together.

I just think that you've got to lock in on defense and be in the right spot and be very disciplined and stay the course throughout the possession because they have a lot of weapons and everybody knows their role. They just run great, great offense.

I think our attitude is the most important thing. Our effort's very important. Then our positioning and being in the right spot. Just having the discipline to combat their skill. They do a great job with shot fakes. They do a great job with driving angles. They get to the line a lot.

So we're just going to have to play a really smart, tough, disciplined game. That's not a great concern, but that's the issue that you have. I mean, I believe we can do it, but that's what's facing you with Washington. So defensively I think that's important.

Then offensively be patient enough and being tough enough to get to the line as well. They'll try to force you into settling for some perimeter shots. And the teams that take a really large amount of threes against them don't seem to do very well. We've got to have the patience and the toughness to try to attack their zone and really get the ball in the paint and be tough. Because one thing it looks like to me, they're just saying you're not getting anything easy in the paint around the basket. You're going to have to make some perimeter shots. So you can't fall into the trap of being impatient and taking a lot of quick shots. You've got to be tough.

So I guess to sum it up against them, you're going to have to be tougher than them, and that's something that I tell our players all the time. You're in control of that. You have a choice to be the tougher team, and it's a tall task to be tougher than Washington. They're very, very tough.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you for joining us for the press conference for the Kentucky women's basketball team. We're joined by Kentucky student-athletes Janee Thompson and Makayla Epps.

Q. Makayla, how are you feeling in comparison to the other night when you left the game for a little bit?

MAKAYLA EPPS:
 I'm feeling a lot better than I did Monday night when I took the fall. Of course I still have a little pain and soreness, but that's expected. Nothing that's going to hinder me from playing tomorrow, though.

Q. For both of you, Matthew talked about toughness is going to be the thing that wins or loses this game tomorrow night. After all the stuff both physically and off the court you guys have been through, do you feel like you're a tough team in general?

MAKAYLA EPPS:
 I feel like we came a tough team. There's been times in a couple games where we haven't shown toughness. We were on a three-game losing streak and we weren't tough in that period. But I think as of now we're very tough, a tougher team than we were. We're going up and grabbing rebounds with two hands. We're winning 50-50 plays when necessary. We've got people being gritty, a lot of people fouling. I don't know if that's tough or just getting cheap fouls.

But regardless, we're playing a lot harder than we did in the opening of the season. Coach is right --
tomorrow will be all about toughness. The tougher team will win tomorrow.

JANEE THOMPSON: I completely agree. The tougher team will win. I do think we're a tough team. I think as far as tenacity and resilience goes, I think we have those qualities, and I think they've come because of some of the adversity that we've gotten through during the season. So I think we're ready to play and we're just ready to outwork the opponent.

Q. Could you both talk about what it's been like kind of mentoring Taylor (Murray) and Maci (Morris) this season and what their personalities have been like and if that's been an easy job, difficult job or how that's been for each of you?

JANEE THOMPSON:
 I'd say overall it's been pretty easy. There are times when it's tough because they're freshmen and they make some silly mistakes. But they're both so open to learning. They never have anything to say, they never have any excuses. They just want to get better and they want to do it right, and they trust that Makayla and I know what it is that they need to be doing and that we're trying to help them.

It's been really easy and they work so hard and they've been working hard since the moment they stepped on campus, so I admire how far both of them have come.

MAKAYLA EPPS: I don't really look at them as freshmen being that's their class. But they play starters, they play veteran. Maci starts, Taylor plays starter's minutes. We're very proud to be on the team. They've both grown so much over the course of the season. And like I said, they never have an excuse.

They never back down from a challenge. Janee and Taylor were arguing over who was going to pick up the ball the other day in the Oklahoma game. That's a freshman and a senior arguing over who is going to stop the ball. So it's little stuff like that that shows this team has made great strides and those two freshmen have made great strides.

Q. What kind of environment do you expect here at home playing for the possibility of a Final Four? 

JANEE THOMPSON:
 I think it will be electric. It's always fun when we come here. We've been here a few times this year and the fans really come out and support us. We've got the best fans in the country. It will be exciting when we finally get out there and we make some plays and get the crowd going.

MAKAYLA EPPS: Like Janee said, I expect it to be electrifying. It's a Friday night, 7 p.m. What else could people in Lexington possibly be doing? So I'm encouraging everybody to come out. It's a home court for us. Even though the court doesn't really mean the team will win or not, but I'm encouraging everybody to come out, and I'm sure it will be fun.

Q. This year the road to the Final Four goes through Lexington, so it's nice not having to leave town. What have you guys done to keep distractions to a minimum, to be able to keep focused and to literally to relax and enjoy yourselves during this period?

MAKAYLA EPPS:
 Coach takes great care of us in many different ways. Right now we're staying at a hotel off campus, so we're not on campus around our friends and other students. We're in a hotel by ourselves.
Everybody's got their own rooms so you can get some space from your teammates and get some downtime for yourself. It was like that for the first two rounds too.

So we're just staying focused. We're treating it like a road game even though we're in Lexington, so that's the big focus of it all.

JANEE THOMPSON: Yeah, exactly what Makayla said. The environment and the atmosphere, it's like a road game, so there are no distractions. It's almost like we're away until we get out on the court.

Q. Having played here before in a big arena, just the shooting background, do you think it's an advantage for you guys because you are familiar with this arena?

MAKAYLA EPPS:
 Not really an advantage, because like I said, again, a court doesn't necessarily mean you're going to win or lose. Washington came into Maryland and beat Maryland at home. So that just goes to show how sometimes the ball won't bounce in your favor. Who is to say we'll go out and shoot 50 percent from the line tomorrow, it could be a contested battle. I'm sure being we're playing here in Kentucky the crowd will get behind us and stuff like that, so that will help us in a sense. But at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter where you're playing at.

JANEE THOMPSON: Same. It doesn't matter where we're playing. We've got to go out there and make plays and do what we're supposed to do and outwork Washington to win the game.

Q. Makayla, your dad has gotten a lot of air time over the recent games. He always looks so tense. He's tough to watch. Is there anything you can do to kind of relax him?

MAKAYLA EPPS:
 You know, it's funny because I think I have made some type of play that I wasn't happy with myself and they had shown him in Memorial (Coliseum). As I was walking back I was looking, and in my head I was thinking, he's not happy with you right now. But maybe that wasn't the case. He does have like a tense, serious face all the time, but people were telling me your dad was really out there cheering for you, so it's tough like that that makes me feel good.

I think that's just his demeanor and he takes me after the game and tells me I played good regardless of what the stat sheet said. He was proud of me for getting back out there after my injury.

Q. Apparently your dad played with a lot of great players here in Kentucky. What's it make you feel like when a guy like Derek Anderson is saying he's watching you and seeing some of your dad? Because he knew you when you were young and he's proud to see and a lot of his teammates are the same way.

MAKAYLA EPPS:
 I know a lot of them guys personally now that I've grown up. Of course they always tell me they used to baby sit me and stuff when my dad wasn't around. I saw Cameron (Mills) the other day at the (Kentucky) Boys State Tournament, and I talk to Derek often, so just to hear stuff like that really means a lot to me.

Of course I was younger when my dad was playing, I had just been born, so I didn't get a chance to see him in action like some of you did. I've seen clips, but that's still not the same feel. But to be in the same category and get the same characteristics and viewpoint that my dad did really means a lot to me.

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