When you walk into the Joe Craft Training Facilities on UK’s campus, the first two doors are the basketball offices; women on the right, men on the left. The trophy cases outside the men’s office display national title trophies, but across the hall, rather than display an SEC title or one of their numerous Elite Eights, the women simply have a table with a plaque that reads “Reserved for National Championship”.
With that kind of lazer-focus and the talent-packed team the women have this year under head coach Matthew Mitchell, they will get dangerously close. This team is returning four starters- ten total players- and while the men have their own slew of 6 McDonald’s All-Americans, this team has one-upped them with seven, two of whom are freshman.
One freshman’s name might ring a bell. Epps. Makayla Epps. Daughter of 1996 Champion Anthony Epps. Wearing the #25 jersey like her dad, Coach Mitchell expects big things from this freshman saying at media day, “Makayla is someone we’re very grateful that she chose Kentucky and we’re excited about her talent level, and what I’ve been impressed by is her character. She comes in with a lot of accolades and with high expectations. I’m very impressed with how she has handled all that. Wherever she’s had a deficiency and freshmen coming in with some gaps, whether it may be effort because they’re not used to the pace of practice or whether it may be conditioning or whatever it is, freshmen have an adjustment period, and every time Makayla has had something presented to her where she needed to get better, her response has been phenomenal. She’s proven to be very receptive to coaching, and so when you get a real talented player who is not afraid to address her weaknesses, that’s very, very exciting for a coach. Makayla is so versatile. She can literally play every position on the floor for us, and we’ve had some versatile players before. The thing that sort of makes her different is she can legitimately play the one, the point guard position, which is the most difficult position on our team to play. So she can play them all and play them all well, and so we’re really excited about her. Last night we had our tip‑off celebration with our booster club, and we talked to her and she addressed the crowd, and she said she’s just here to help and she wants to win championships. So just is a very humble attitude for a player of that caliber and is exciting for a coach to see. So I’m very optimistic about her future, and I think she has a chance to have a good freshman season. “
Coming out of Marion County High School, Epps is listed on the roster as a guard for now.
Listed by ESPN as the #32 player in the nation Epps was also Miss Kentucky Basketball and Kentucky Gatorade Female Player of the Year. Epps isn’t the only Marion County freshman to join the Wildcats, high school teammate and forward, Kevyn Goodin-Rodgers will be joining her. Rounding off this freshman class is the highest ranked recruit UK Women’s basketball has ever had into the program, Linnae Harper. Harper, a Chicago native, was the #5 player out of high school and another MCDAA.
Perhaps one of the most impressive players on this team is senior, DeNesha Stallworth. Stallworth was just named to the preseason Wooden Award top 30 watch list. Mitchell has high expectations for Stallworth.
“You know, DeNesha is very, very talented, and what I try to impress upon her is we have a very important season ahead of us, but also she has a very important future ahead of us beyond this season. I have in my mind a real sense of urgency to try to complete the job that we started. She came here because she wanted to become a complete player, and she wanted to really reach her potential, which is another way of saying she wants to be her best. I’m just looking for that. She has so many physical gifts. She’s such a versatile offensive and defensive player, another player that we love because she’s so versatile. What I think she needs to do is just take that approach every single day of believing in herself and making sure that happens before practice starts and then practice with that belief I think is really the key for her to break out and be ‑‑ and I think she ought to be one of the top 10 or 12 players in the country. I think she should be an All‑American. I think she could work herself into the position of being a top-five draft choice. All of those things are going to happen. I don’t think physically, I think it’s going to start mentally and emotionally for her. Just her believing in herself and coming to practice every day, pushing herself to be the best, because she has everything that you need to be an All‑American type, SEC Player of the Year type, first‑round draft choice type, long professional career ahead of her if she can get those mental and emotional things that will help her stay strong. I think that’s really the key for her. “
Stallworth also has very high expectations for her team, “Everything. SEC Champions, Tournament Champions, Final Four, National Champions. We are trying to do it all. We have been doing really well in practice and we are going to keep getting better daily.”
Mitchell said at media day that “they want to be a championship team”.
Mitchell, in his 7th year at Kentucky has led this program to three Elite Eight appearances in four years. Could this be the year they finally make it over the hump into the Final Four and into Championship contingency? With a preseason #6 ranking by ESPN, there’s no time like the present.