By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — When Kentucky needed her most, Maci Morris was there.
The sophomore went 7-for-8 at the foul line in the final 37 seconds to help Kentucky nail down a 73-70 win over Belmont Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky will now play the Ohio State-Western Kentucky winner Sunday.
Makayla Epps had a sensational game. She made her first five 3-pointers and finished with 30 points on 11-for-18 shooting, five rebounds and two assists and never came out of the game.
“Belmont is a great 3-point shooting team and we matched them. They only hit two more than we did. I started the game shooting all 3’s,” Epps said. “Never know what you will be doing in a game. The shots were open. Even the ones I missed, felt good. If you don’t respect me, I am going to shoot it.”
Belmont coach Cameron Newbauer, a former Louisville assistant, said the plan to was to give Epps those shots.
“We made her take the shots and she made them,” he said. “She is crafty. Crafty with bounce and her body. When she is hitting her 3’s that really changes the game. If you come out and guard here, then she has you. She can do it all and she believes she can. Matthew (Mitchell) has done a great job tailoring everything around her. She is just really good.”
Evelyn Akhator had 22 points on 9-for-15 shooting, 10 rebounds and two assists.
Morris added 15 points even though the was just 3-for-9 from the field. Ten of her points came in the final five minutes and she had 10 of UK’s final 14 points. She also had four assists, three rebounds and two steals. She played 37 minutes.
“Great players step up when they have to,” Newbauer said. “Maci stepped up when she had to. Not a breakdown (on our part). She just hit a big shot. The free throws she did her job. I recruited Maci at Louisville and everybody in state knows she can shoot it.”
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said Morris’ 3-pointer that pushed UK’s lead to seven points was the biggest shot of the game. He also liked the way she handled the free throws.
“She didn’t seem too concerned and that is a good demeanor to have. On those last ones my heart was racing,” Mitchell said. “I still get amazed to watch young people go up there and knock down free throws. Epps was saying she had ice water in her veins.
“She is just a cool customer. I can get a little frustrated with her and she just keeps coming. Her free throws are a great weapon to have. You need those kind of things to win games.”
Morris and Makenzie Cann also combined to put the defense on Darby Maggard in the final seconds when the Belmont guard misfired on a game-tying 3-point attempt. She had five 3-pointers in the game and 15 points. Kylee Smith led Belmont with 23 points and eight rebounds while Sally McCabe had 16 points and 12 rebounds.
“Kentucky is a great defensive team. That’s where they make their money is getting up in people and being able to force you into tough shots,” Maggard said. “They switched the last possession and No. 22 (Makenzie Cann) was out on me. I had to pivot and try to find space. That’s a testament to their defense.”
Mitchell was just glad UK won after almost a two-week break from its last game in the SEC Tournament.
“Belmont really tested us in every way imaginable. They have our total respect and pushed us to the limit. I thought Belmont played with great poise and great energy all day,” Mitchell said. “It certainly didn’t all go right for us today. We had a gut check at halftime and players came out and gave a good enough effort to win.”
Mitchell was not happy with his team’s play the second quarter.
“I don’t know what happened there. We really got down and dejected and stopped hustling. I couldn’t understand why it was happening. I just said until we get the hustle turned around there was not much we could do to help them,” Mitchell said.