Sunday, March 19, 2017

Transcript: UK Hoops Head Coach Matthew Mitchell, Evelyn Akhator, Makayla Epps Post #4 UK Hoops 68 vs #5 Ohio State 82 Second Round ~ 2017 NCAA Women's Tournament Lexington Region Memorial Coliseum, Lexington, Ky

Kentucky Hoops Head Coach Matthew Mitchell

Opening statement ...
"Give credit to Ohio State. They played hard and are a great team. We dug ourselves in a big hole and fought hard to get out of it. We weren't able to make it all the way back, but I'm really proud of their effort. It's been a special experience coaching them. I'm proud of our two seniors. They battled through real adversity since the end of last season to spearhead an effort to create a true team. That's what we were. We were a group of flawed individuals that came together. Our sum ended being greater than our parts. That's a testament to these young women. I don't know that I've ever been prouder to be the coach at Kentucky to have had the honor of coaching this group. We're sad today, but we'll hold our heads high, knowing that we accomplished what every university that has a program - I think you would want to have a team at the end of it. That's a tremendous accomplishment. It doesn't always happen, but it happened at Kentucky this year. I'm really proud of our players that became a great team."

On his team's mentality in the early minutes of the game ..."I don't know what happened there at the beginning. I thought they were outstanding yesterday. We had a walk through yesterday and they were really in tune. They had a nice session this morning. We did get back on our heels, I'll have to maybe debrief them after the season to figure out exactly what that was. I don't if we were nervous. I asked them at the first media timeout, 'Are you nervous?' We did not have a lot of pep in our step. If we could've played with the same kind of energy that we had in the third quarter to start the game, then maybe things would've been different. I think you have to give a lot of credit to Ohio State. They were really aggressive and fast. They were making shots early on and shooting the ball well. When they're shooting the ball well, they're a very dangerous team."

On if he felt like the energy just wasn't there in the final minutes ...
"I thought the energy was there. We're wide open for several shots there to get over the hump, and we just couldn't get the ball in the basket. I don't think it was a lack of energy. I think we were going so hard for a couple of offensive boards there that (Ohio State) was able to run it out and make the margin what it was. They know they were in the game there in the second half and we worked hard. I don't fault their energy. I thought we were a little low-energy there in the first half. We've had so many great moments this year, but when we are not at our best it's when we're getting down and losing our poise offensively. We just didn't make Ohio State work very hard when they stretched out their lead. We were quick shooting the ball and not getting on the boards. I thought we turned that around in the second half, but credit (Ohio State). They had a great day and played hard. There's not a lot of difference between a four and a five seed, and they played better than we did today."

On what he said at halftime to his team to get them to hold Kelsey Mitchell to two points in the second half ...
"We tried to start the game bothering her and trapping her. I don't know if we were able to get better and adjust a little bit. She's so explosive. Some of those shots she made are hard shots. A lot of times, you try to figure out what's wrong with you and you don't give the other team enough credit. She just did a really good job."

On former UK guard Linnae Harper's performance ...
"I thought Linnae made some big plays, had a good day on the boards and made some timely, key shots. I thought that and-one where she got fouled - I don't think she made the free throw - that was a big play with Maci's (Morris) fourth foul. She's a good player - a really good player. You look at their team and there's a lot of balance. Everybody scored except for one player. They really brought it today as a team so you congratulate them."

On Ohio State switching up defenses on Epps ...
"We've seen that a lot this season. We're prepared for that. I thought that, mentally, all of us got back on our heels. I don't know if it was Ohio State's hot shooting that we were surprised by and let it affect us more than we should have. We lacked poise and execution there in the first half. I don't know that we could've done well against any of their defenses if we didn't have that. A lot of teams have chased Makayla and tried to make it hard on her, but that's a credit to how good of a player she is. Ohio State certainly did a good job today."

On what kind of legacy he thinks Epps and Akhator leave at UK ...
"Well, I've said this before. I'm so grateful for those two because they've taught me as much of anything that I've taught them. They gave me, and all of us here who have worked hard to build a good program that has integrity and develops people and isn't just about winning games. We also develop people. It looked very unusual last spring. To go through all of that and hear those two talk about their experience, it lets you know what Kentucky is about. And what all of us are about. They didn't just mention me. They mentioned their teammates and what kind of young women they are. No advancement in this tournament, no trophy we could've won can replace the gift that they gave me, which is that honesty, hard work, and discipline still work. Being in a program where the expectation for you is to be coachable, accountable, resilient still works. Those two will take those things with them when they leave. You can't haul out a trophy with you. Those things don't matter long term. What matters is the experience they had that helped them develop as people. I'm grateful for the hard work they put in. You couldn't have two better seniors. They're two real special people that did a lot for us, so we're grateful."

On if Ohio State did something in the final five minutes that decided the game ...
"I'll have to go and see all of the shots. I know we had two - they didn't even guard two wide open 3s from (Morris) and Mackenzie (Cann). I'm not sure what the score was. I think it was around five. We ran the same play two times, got two wide open 3s that ended up running out and (Ohio State) scored both times. A five-point game goes to a double-digit game almost. They played hard today. It was real physical. I don't know that we've ever had 10 shots blocked in a game. Those kids really did a good job. I thought Evelyn (Akhator) took the ball in there strongly. They, evidently, blocked all of those shots. I'll have to see what happened there, but I'll have to go back and look at the film. I know we were trying. I'm proud of that effort to try to get in position to win." 

On if there were any emotions coaching against Harper ...
"I moved on from that so long ago, as far as the people who didn't want to be here. All of my emotion, effort, and work has gone into this particular team. This was a remarkable team, and I hope that this now puts all of this - finally, we can move forward. Kentucky is a great place. Some people decided not to be here. We treated all of those folks with a lot of respect and let them go and do whatever they wanted to do. I certainly know Linnae. I think she played great today. I wish her nothing but happiness and every other person that chose not to be here. I don't invest any time in that. I want to invest all of my time in Kentucky and the remarkable young women who were the 2016-17 team. I'll just have to tell you, I don't know that I've ever had an experience as a coach - and this is certainly not the most wins we've ever had - but you're talking about a great team, great group of young women, and that's where all my emotions are. That's where all my effort is. We wish everybody else in the country, wherever they are, the best, but I don't spend one second thinking about anybody but these 12 remarkable young women and what it took for us to be the team that we were this year. I was really excited about the game today and had no negative emotion going into it. I hope Ohio State has a fantastic weekend here in Lexington next week."

On if he had some sense of comfort during the stretch where UK got back in the game ...
"I was excited that we had been able to wake up and play the game how I thought we could play it. We were never a team this year that could get away with being a step slow or lacking focus - the little things. We weren't in the stance at times. We were slowly reacting. We weren't gritting our teeth so to speak. That's what I told them at halftime, 'We have to grit our teeth, get in a better stance, and just play. There's no magic pill here. We're just not playing hard enough defensively. I was excited for them. I never thought we were out of it. I told them coming up the tunnel when (the lead) was 15 that I thought we were right in it. We had to make some adjustments, but I thought we were right in it. I was just happy to see them play closer to their personality. They did that so many more times this year than they didn't. What a joy it was to coach them. A remarkable, high-character - great young women. Great students. It's like I told them there, I've never been prouder to be the Kentucky coach."

Evelyn Akhator, Kentucky Forward

On her time at Kentucky and thinking about the next level…

“I only spent two years here and it’s been the best two years of my life. I’m really close to the coaches but Coach Mitchell treated me like a daughter and I was able to open up to him. I don’t open up, I usually keep things to myself. He was able to get through to me which made much more comfortable with him and my teammates. I became so close to my teammates and I really opened up to them. Every time I was down they always knew something was wrong with me and they would try to talk to me about it and just get me to let it go. It has been a huge impact in my life and they became family to me. My two years here has been like four years not just in Kentucky but it’s like I have been here forever. Honestly, Kentucky is like my home away from home and I will never forget that.”

On her play in the paint…
“Offensively I would say I struggled a little bit with my finishes. The first half of the game I was taking quick shots not being patient and that really hurt my game, I think I still did the same thing in the second half. I mean, it was a game we needed to win, so I can’t hang my head. If I can’t score offensively I can’t let that affect my game. I have to keep rebounding and looking for players like Makayla. I was just going for the rebound because they were bigger players and if I don’t go for rebounds or if my teammates do go then we don’t win. I just have to keep pushing offensively. One of the scouting reports said that they don’t rebound, they don’t box out, and we just tried to used that to our advantage.”

Makayla Epps, Kentucky Guard

On UK’s second-half comeback...

“We had dug ourselves a 15-poin hole at the half. Coach told us that we could come back so we weren’t in the locker room defeated, we might have been a little deflated but we were never defeated going into the break. We were just trying to attack them in transition, it’s a really big part of our game. Then I started getting to the rim a couple of times, everything started opening up for the perimeter players and on the inside. Then when we got within one I was saying ‘keep attacking.’ Then we had a couple break downs, we didn’t score on our end, missed a couple of free throws but things like that happen but I never thought the team was out of it. Everyone kept their mentality about them, nobody got the down mentality even though we down big early.”

On why Ohio State got that big lead in the first half…
“Just our scheme on Kelsey Mitchell. She’s a phenomenal player, I have tremendous respect for her. I know she got hot early, she jumped out to 10 quick points early. They were getting some offensive rebounds and second-chance points early. Stuff that we were practicing was not how we were playing early.”

On her career at Kentucky and what it means to her…
“I don’t even know if I can put it into words. First off, I want to thank Coach Mitchell for giving me the opportunity to come here on an athletic scholarship. Those are not given, you have to earn them. A lot of credit to him, he has done a great job here at the University of Kentucky. My four years here were not easy. It was not just a joy ride the whole time I was here. I had some highs and lows, moments where I didn’t know if I was coming or going. He would take time out of his life, busy days, take time away from his family to sit up in his office and talk with me one-on-one, getting to know me and that is the type of coaches you need, the type that really get to know their players. Then my teammates especially this year, they made my senior year the best year here. It’s not the team I started out with but it is the team I finished with. Like Coach Mitchell said even though we didn’t get the win today, we’re a team. We made Memorial Coliseum rock today and I will never forget the players in the locker room. Maci came up to me a minute ago and hugged me telling me that I’m the best teammate she ever had and one of the best people she’s ever been around. It really means a lot to me. It’s a lot more than just basketball for me, basketball isn’t forever for me but just to know that I have made a huge impact on so many people’s lives during my four years here means the world to me.”

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