LEXINGTON, Ky. – After earning its school-record eighth straight appearance in the Big Dance, the No. 18 University of Kentucky women’s basketball team will begin play in the 2017 NCAA Tournament on Friday at Noon ET by hosting 13th-seeded Belmont in the first round inside historic Memorial Coliseum.
First-round action in Lexington starts Friday with Kentucky-Belmont before fifth-seeded Ohio State battles 12th-seeded WKU at approx. 2:30 p.m. ET. Both games will be televised regionally on ESPN2 with Beth Mowins on play-by-play and Nell Fortner as the analyst. Those outside of the ESPN2 regional footprint can watch the games through WatchESPN on computers, smartphones and tablets. Now in his 12th season, Neil Price will have the call on the UK Sports Network, airing in Lexington on 630-AM WLAP. Live stats and free live audio will be available online at ukathleics.com.
For the fourth year in a row, Kentucky has been selected to host the first and second rounds of the tournament inside historic Memorial Coliseum. The Wildcats earned a No. 4 seed in the event, marking the third time the Wildcats have been a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. UK has earned a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament each of the last eight years. The last time UK held a No. 4 seed was in the 2011 tournament when it played in Spokane, Wash., defeating Hampton in overtime in the first round before falling 86-74 to North Carolina in the second round. In the 2010 tournament, the Wildcats were a No. 4 seed, defeating Liberty (13), Michigan State (5) and Nebraska (1) to advance to the Elite Eight before falling to Oklahoma.
Kentucky is 19-13 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, including a 15-7 record under Mitchell. The best finishes for UK came in 2013, 2012, 2010 and 1982 when the Wildcats fell one win shy of the Final Four. Last season, UK fell in the Sweet 16. The Wildcats are one of seven schools nationally to advance to at least five of the last seven Sweet 16s. This is Kentucky’s 14th all-time appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats earned the high seed in the tournament after finishing 21-10 and advancing to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament for the eighth straight season. Kentucky enters the tournament ranked No. 18 in the final Associated Press Top 25 and No. 24 in the USA Today/Coaches Top 25. Kentucky sits at No. 14 in the latest NCAA RPI with the third-toughest strength of schedule. UK’s 20-win season was its school-record eighth in a row, while the Wildcats’ 11 league wins were the most since recording 13 in 2012-13. UK posted six wins against RPI top 50 teams and had three wins against ranked foes, taking down then-No. 12 Oklahoma, then-No. 14 Miami (Fla.) and then-No. 3 Mississippi State.
Seniors Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator have paced the Wildcats this season as both were named first team All-Southeastern Conference performers by league coaches. Epps is averaging a team-best 17.2 points per game, adding 4.5 rebounds per game and leading the Wildcats with 112 assists. The native of Lebanon, Ky., is coming off her best performance of the season, scoring a season-best 31 points with nine rebounds against South Carolina in the SEC Tournament. Akhator has been equally impressive for the Wildcats, averaging a double-double with 15.8 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, leading the team with 24 blocks while sitting second with 44 steals. The native of Lagos, Nigeria has 16 double-doubles on the season and has scored 20 or more points with nine or more rebounds in three of her last four games.
Two other Wildcats are averaging double figures this season in sophomores Taylor Murray and Maci Morris. Murray, who missed Kentucky’s game against South Carolina due to injury and is listed as day-to-day, is averaging 12.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, while Morris is averaging 11.7 points and has hit a team-best 49 3-pointers this season.
Belmont (27-5) received an automatic bid in the tournament after winning the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. The Bruins went 16-0 in conference play this season behind scoring 77.8 points per game and limiting opponents to just 65.2 points per game. Belmont is outrebounding teams by 11.8 rebounds per game. Junior forward Kylee Smith is the team’s leading scorer with 15.7 points per game and 5.1 rebounds per game, while three other players are averaging double figures. Sophomore guard Darby Maggard is averaging 14.4 points per game, while junior center Sally McCabe is averaging 12.4 points per game. The Bruins have used a big rotation as nine players have played in all 32 games.
Kentucky leads the all-time series in games played against Belmont, 3-1. Kentucky has won each of the last two meetings in the series, including a 71-55 victory over the Bruins on Dec. 14, 2014 in Memorial Coliseum. This is the first time the two teams have met in the NCAA Tournament. Mitchell is 1-0 all-time as a head coach against Belmont.
Kentucky last played Belmont on Dec. 14, 2014 in Memorial Coliseum as part of a regular-season non-conference game. Several players that played in that game are still on both teams, including Epps and Alyssa Rice for UK and McCabe, Frankie Joubran, Lauren Thompson, Sierra Jones and Kia Perry for BU. Epps played 30 minutes in the game, scoring seven points with three rebounds and two assists, while Rice played 21 minutes with four points and two rebounds. The Wildcats shot 40.6 percent from the field and hit 5-of-19 3s in the game. UK out-rebounded Belmont 40-34. McCabe, Joubran, Thompson, Jones and Perry combined to scored 28 of Belmont’s 55 points in the game. The Bruins shot 38 percent from the field and went 2-for-10 from 3.
Kentucky is 94-17 all-time against teams from the current alignment of the Ohio Valley Conference. UK only played one OVC opponent during regular-season play, defeating Morehead State, which finished 11-5 and second in the OVC, 74-47.