Thursday, March 16, 2017

Video/Transcript: UK Hoops Head Coach Matthew Mitchell, Makayla Epps, Evelyn Akhator Pre #4 UK Hoops vs #13 Belmont Second Round ~ 2017 NCAA Women's Tournament Lexington Region Memorial Coliseum, Lexington, Ky Comments


Video courtesy of kywildcatstv

Matthew Mitchell, Kentucky Head Coach:

On Taylor Murray and her availability for the weekend ...

"She participated yesterday in non-contact and will go full-contact practice, so she's cleared to resume practice activities, which will hopefully translate into a good performance tomorrow. She's good to go for practice today and will have a full contact practice. She'll be participating and we're excited about that."

On if Murray will be 100% ...
"Taylor was out there yesterday getting up and down, so she didn't have any contact. We got some full-court action for her, and I told her to look at it as a real positive. She's going to have fresh legs tomorrow. At this point, as many minutes as she's played and as hard as she's played - she's one of our most fit players. Whatever she might have to go through to get her sea legs set back underneath her, I have a lot of confidence in her being able to do that. Now, could there be some moments of struggle there? Sure. She's been out for several days. I'm not obsessing over or stressing out over that. I think she'll be ok." 

On Makayla Epps' and Evelyn Akhator's comments on what it means to host in Lexington ..."It's a real tribute to the character of our players and the kind of young women, athletes, and people that they are. They do care for each other and love each other. That's been a beautiful thing to be a part of. When you go through times of adversity, you hear it all the time how that can bring you closer together if you use that opportunity in the right way. That's what we always try to do. We just always try to look at it as an opportunity to be developed and not defeated. It's a remarkable group, and it's an absolute zero-drama group. It's an unselfish group. They don't care about anything other than winning for each other and Kentucky coming out on top. That's been a lot of fun. From their families to people surrounding them, they've just been so supportive all the way around. I think we're all in this together. I think we all appreciate each other a whole bunch. It's been a fun team to be a part of, so that's what really motivated us to keep playing. We're going to see if we can prepare well today, go out there, compete hard, and beat a really good Belmont team tomorrow." 

On how rare it is for a team to not have drama ...
"No drama is pretty rare, but it's a place where we really like and we're going to try to keep it that way. It goes to making sure that you communicate - have that out on the front burner where people understand that's the expectation, and you have real high-character kids. That's what we've had here this year. It's just been a lot of fun to see a group - I don't mean flawless. We have conflict. We had conflict yesterday. We didn't want to listen to each other in the play, emotions get high. It's not a perfect group, but at the end of the day, it's a group that will sit down and listen to each other and say, 'Hey, we do care about each other.' They've acted great off the court and made spectacular grades. It's been a real fun group to be around." 

On what the main thing UK needs to focus on against Belmont ...
"They are an explosive offensive team. When you average 80 points per game, that is impressive. They can score. They are lethal behind the 3-point line. It's incredible to see. Their percentages - when you have kids shooting in excess of 40. Darby Maggard's over 50 (percent) in OVC play - that is lethal 3-point shooting. With the 3-point line, you have to be really sharp and aggressive. Now, if you're guarding the 3-point line that also gives them opportunities to put the ball on the floor and drive, which they can do. It's a very difficult team to defend. They're well-coached. They're very smart. They're at an extremely high execution level. They do a bunch of different things that are hard to prepare for in a couple of days, but we've really got to rely on what we've valued all year when we've been at our best. We have to hustle, hustle, hustle tomorrow. We've got to fight hard because, inevitably, there's going to be some actions and things in the game that we've maybe seen over the course of the season. Maybe we haven't. We'll never be able to prepare for every single situation, so we have to rely on our hustle and defensive fundamentals. We have to stick together tomorrow defensively in order to defend Belmont because they are a very good team."

On if he has said something to the team about hosting and what it's been like in previous seasons to host ..."It's funny how you grow and evolve as a coach. If you think to 10 years ago when I took over, then eight years ago we went to our first NCAA Tournament. That was somewhat of a surprise. We were picked at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference, so we really didn't talk any. At that time, you had to bid to host at home. We didn't even know if we'd make the NCAA Tournament, and we certainly knew that we weren't going to be at home. That was a certain dynamic with that team. The years after that, as the expectations started to increase and the teams got better, you might have discussed different things throughout the season. I would go back - with this particular team - to what (Epps) was talking about. In September, we had two low-post players, (Akhator) and Alyssa (Rice), who we knew could play. Last year we struggled with foul trouble, turnovers, and different things. As I was approaching the season, I was just trying to figure out how we could win games and do everything that we could to give our team. We talked very little about seeding. We believed we could be a NCAA Tournament team, but we just tried to figure out if we could get better and do our very best as a team. We probably discussed that less this year than other years. I don't know that was something that we were necessarily shooting for. I think (Epps), being a senior and smart about how the seeding process goes, I heard them mention it more: 'Hey, we need to do well and win games so we can host.' As a coach, I didn't bring that up to them a lot. Once we're here, we're thrilled that we're here and excited, but it was not a focal point of our conversations this year."

On if there will be in extra emotions if they make it past Friday while coaching against a former player ...
"I think this group is smart enough to know that Belmont has to be the focus. We have zero control over anything other than being a top-four seed. We could earn that. Our team did a great job with that. Only 16 teams got this opportunity, and we were one of them so we had some control over that with our play throughout the year, how we scheduled and performed against that. After that, we had no control over who was placed in this pod. Right now the job in front of us in an extremely explosive, talented, and well-coached Belmont team that we have to give all of our energy to. Not one thing is promised after that. If we are fortunate enough to win, we will have zero control over who we play. We'll just take it like that and focus on Belmont right now. Then we'll see if we're fortunate enough to be able to compete and earn a victory tomorrow. That's really where I have to be right now as their leader. We love each other like they said. You never want a season to end, but I can promise you that I don't want this season to end one second before it has to. That means we would love to play in that national championship game, have a chance to win it, and play on the very last day of the season. We can't do that if we don't handle tomorrow. Everything right now is on trying to see if we can find a way to prepare, be ready, and defeat an outstanding Belmont team."

Makayla Epps, Kentucky Guard:

On the usefulness and helpfulness of changing their approach to on-court communication…

“It was very useful and helpful and beneficial for us. Communication on the basketball court goes a long way and some people might not realize that; even us sometimes. When we’re fatigued, then we’re not talking. And the difference between us being active and talking and the difference between us not talking takes us a long way. I just feel like after the Texas A&M game we all made a commitment to better communicate with each other. And there have been times where communication has saved us, like with me getting beat off the dribble and someone else comes to take a charge and having my back and each other’s backs. We love each other, so why not just talk to each other on the basketball court to help us win?” 

On being allowed to call plays on the court…
“This year more so than the past year, he’s kind of just given it to us. He’s (Matthew Mitchell) got a lot of trust between me and Taylor (Murray) and we’ve got a lot of trust in him. I feel like it’s been helpful to not have to walk the ball up the court and look backwards at him to get a play call so we can just push the tempo and call it ourselves. Taylor really enjoys that. She would ask me for a play call and I would ask her for a play call. Or we’ll ask Maci (Morris) what she wants to run when she’s hot. So, we just play through each other and play within each other. There’s a lot of trust and a strong bond between us so whoever calls the play, we have a lot of faith in that play call.” 

On their mindset in September vs. their mindset now…“For me personally, back in September leading up to starting practice, I didn’t have a feel for anything. You can’t predict your season or the future. I didn’t know what was going to happen but I had a lot of faith in Coach Mitchell and knew he was going to do everything in his power to help the six players who returned to have a good season. He put a lot of work and a lot of time in, along with our other assistant coaches. But once we got our 12-player roster filled out, we came in here and worked every day in this gym and practiced hard. And I feel like we did exceed not necessarily our expectations, but the expectations of everyone outside of this building. I’m sure some people didn’t think we’d get a four seed and beat some of the teams we did. Like he (Mitchell) said, we baked a good cake and I’m going to keep saying that.” 

On what they know about Belmont and what’s the key to victory…
“I feel like I’ve played them at least one time of my four years here. But, you’ve got to respect them for what they’ve done regardless of their conference or the seed beside their name. You’ve got to respect them. Coach told us that this is one of the deadliest 3-point shooting teams that we’ve seen. I thought Missouri was pretty hot, and their offense is better than Missouri. So, you’ve got to respect them for what they’ve done. Winning 25 of their last 26 is really impressive and they made it to the tournament. It’s always those underdog teams that wants to be the upset team, so I know they’re going to come in here and fight hard because if they lose, it’s their last game of the season, too. Everybody’s playing for their season to prolong, so I’m sure they’re going to come out here and give us a good competitive fight tomorrow.”

Evelyn Akhator, Kentucky Forward:

On the comfort of playing at home…
“Playing at home really means a lot to us. But, as long as we have trust in the team, we don’t really care where they take us to. Playing at home and playing in front of the best fans in the whole world, really means a lot to us and it’s really going to help boost our morale. And for Makayla and I, it’s like another senior night for us. It’s like it’s our last game so we just need to play as much as we can.”

On their mindset in September vs. their mindset now…
“Like Makayla said, when everything was going on, he (Mitchell) said it doesn’t really matter what the outside people say, it’s about all about us in the building. We just need to stick together as one and play together as one and be together as one. We just love each other. I’ve been here for two years and thinking about last year compared to this year, it’s all about love. So, playing as one and togetherness has been everything.”

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