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Mitchell understands what kind of effort it will take for his team to beat Ohio State

Makayla Epps (Vicky Graff Photo)

Here is what Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell had to say today about Sunday’s second-round NCAA game against Ohio State in Memorial Coliseum.

Matthew Mitchell, Kentucky Head Coach:

On Makayla Epps comments about doing whatever it takes to win and his resulting smile …
“I was just thinking of all of her improvement over her four years and that’s her mentality. She wants to do whatever she can to help Kentucky win and that’s just a real team-first attitude. That’s what brought a smile to my face. That’s what you want your players to develop over their time here, that’s what you want their experience to be. To be a person who gives to the greater good of the group.

No matter where she moves on from here, she’ll play on another team, but then she’ll be, no matter what her profession ends up being in life, she’s thinking about being a coach, those lessons will be really important for her to carry on. Those are the things that are important to us and our program, so that made me happy to hear where her mentality is as a senior.”

On Epps’ versatility and whether she’s turned up her scoring late in the season …
“Well, I think that yesterday, there’s no doubt that there was some urgency that the moment brings. We’re all human, so maybe that urgency is not there in a non-conference game that you are a heavy favorite in. So maybe she didn’t play that way in November and December. So I think all of us, our human nature would kind of sense a moment and someone like her does rise to the occasion. But I think, as we’re looking at our team, I do trust her to figure out what does she need to do that day. What I liked about yesterday was that her mentality was aggressive. So tomorrow, she may need to score 30, I don’t know how it’s ever going to play out exactly. But it’s good to know that she has that capability and that she’s willing to do it. She’s not shying away from the moment. She’s had a lot of big games for us and I feel like she will, in some shape, form or fashion, will need to have a big game for us to win tomorrow. I don’t know what that means statistically, but I do know that she will be very important for us to move on tomorrow.”
On Evelyn Akhator’s play in Friday’s game …
“Well, Evelyn and Makayla are both very good players, senior players. I don’t think it’s unusual for you to, for really good teams to look toward their seniors. Sometimes, there’s an exception to that, but a lot of times, I think all of us are looking toward our seniors who are major players to kind of pull you through. And that doesn’t mean that our underclassmen can’t make contributions. But for our particular team, we knew that coming into the season, that Evelyn and Makayla were going to have to be major factors because of our lack of depth, they were going to have to produce, and they have.

Tomorrow’s game, again, if you look at any extremely talented, gifted team that we’ve played against, when we’ve had success, Evelyn and Makayla have both shown up big for us. It’s the biggest game of the season because it’s the NCAA Tournament and that’s just the nature of this tournament and how our sport is structured. You get a lot of value placed on wins in this tournament. So it’s a huge game tomorrow. But in a lot of respects, we’ve played a bunch of these and we’ll have to be as close to our best as we can be. That’s the way it goes in March. I just told the team last night, we just have to show up today with a mind on preparation for victory. We don’t play until tomorrow and today really, really matters for us and we’ve got to be sharp and we’re going to have to do everything we can to prepare well for victory. We’ve done a pretty darn good job of that all season long. So I’m looking forward to today, it’s going to be a great day for us.”

On Linnae Harper’s rebounding ability …
“Yeah, the good Lord really gifted her with some amazing rebounding talent and not everybody has that. As a coach, you can set up some rebounding drills and you can teach people how to box out and you can do all of these things, but there are some people who are just gifted. And I don’t know of a coach who has been as blessed as I have to coach some of those people. Victoria Dunlap was just a really gifted rebounder. I’m coaching one now, Evelyn Akhator, who does things that I certainly can’t take credit for. And Linnae would be right up there with those people that I’ve been around and that I’ve had the blessing of coaching to just watch that every day. She would make plays in practice on the boards that nobody, big crowds weren’t there, people weren’t there, but I got to see that every day, and it was fun to watch. It’s not nearly as fun to watch when she’s on the other team because you know what’s coming with her. She can really, really jump, has incredible timing, has great strength, a really quick jumper off the floor. So, it’s unusual to see someone her height be able to do what she can do, but she can really rebound the ball.

Linnae was a great kid here, and I was really sad to see her go, didn’t want her to go. But when she came to me and said she felt like she’d be happier somewhere else, you have to allow people to chase their dreams and to go somewhere where they can find that happiness. And I’m sorry she couldn’t find it here. But it looks like she’s doing great at Ohio State and that’s what you ask for in this profession, you need to do it to try to help people. Hopefully, we helped her some while she was here and I hope she has a great career and I hope she plays really, really bad tomorrow and has, along with her teammates, has no success tomorrow (laughter). She was a lot of fun to coach and I think a lot of her.”

On his concerns about Ohio State …
“Well, they’re just so gifted and so talented and so deep and explosive. They are, when you think about in terms of athleticism, I don’t know how we could have played anybody from top to bottom any more athletic. South Carolina is incredibly athletic, Tennessee is incredibly athletic, Miami was really athletic. We’ve played some really athletic teams and I would say that (Ohio State) are, if not more athletic, they certainly are right there at that level. In some respects, I think they may be the most athletic team. Kelsey Mitchell gets a lot of the credit, as she should, she is tremendously explosive, really hard to stop in transition because she’s just so great handling the ball and can get what we call north and south drives, she doesn’t play laterally, she really plays explosively north and south and it’s hard to level her off. She is incredibly gifted and talented. But I’m telling you, their team has so many weapons, is so difficult to match up with. It’s a huge hill to climb tomorrow. They are a fantastic team, just score a boat load of points. So I think for us, going into the game trying to make sure we don’t have the lapses we had yesterday in hustle because they can just hang so many points on you, they can maybe put you in a hole you can’t get out of. Yesterday, we only got in a one-point hole and we got out of that one. (Ohio State) can really, really score and so I think, for us, the thing that would concern me the most, can we show up with a successful, hustle mentality that has made us the Kentucky team that we all love to watch. When we don’t hustle that way, we’re not very much fun to watch. So, I think that’s the major concern on my mind is, can we find some way as coaches and players to get our mentality where we’re just absolutely going to play our guts out tomorrow and see where that can get us.”

On facing a team you’ve never faced and the 48-hour turnaround …
“Well, it’s a challenge, but you can’t get too worked up about it and that’s why you practice so hard to try to establish an identity. The thing you can’t fall into as a coach is, you can’t try to get your team ready on the chalkboard or the grease board and say ‘hey, we can do this, and this would work and that would work’ and try to kind of win the game from and X and O standpoint because every team is going to have things they do well, every team is going to have places where you can attack them, but at this point in time, what our philosophy has always been and what it will remain, we better do what we do, and we better do it better than what Ohio State does well. It’s who plays their style better tomorrow, is really what these come down to. I don’t think you can change a whole lot at this point in time. So really, the focus, while you try to give your players information on Ohio State, the focus really has to be on, what do we do well and out of that, how can we attack Ohio State. I think it’s only challenging if you look at it from the wrong perspective. It’s now, what’s the quality of your, I think this is 134 for us today, our 134th practice. What’s the quality of those, will it show up tomorrow? And then, it’s two talented teams playing, who plays better tomorrow. I think that’s really where the game is won or lost.”

On the benefits of having a tough first-round game …
“I was thinking that, for the test we have tomorrow, that yesterday was a good day to get everybody where they need to be. To see what will happen if you’re not locked in, tuned in, focused and hustling. I think that was a great, great game to be in. And I tell you, we’ve been a four (seed) three times in the last eight years and those 4 (seed)/13 (seed) games have been really, it’s a significant difference between those and the 2/15 game, or even last year, the 3/14 game. It’s a tougher game. We had a really tough game with Liberty, and then the next year Hampton. I think Belmont would have beaten a lot of people yesterday. That was a tough 13 seed. And sometimes, you catch people like that who maybe were a little better than their seeding. I think they certainly were really, really a tough team yesterday. That happened with us I think in 2012, we caught a Green Bay team that was seeded seven, and they were clearly a top four seed. The tournament deals you those cards sometimes, and you’ve just got to play those cards you’re dealt. So I thought yesterday was a fantastic victory for us and a great, great preparation for the test we meet tomorrow. And it’s a very stern test tomorrow vs. a really, really good Ohio State team.”

On if he appreciated the back and forth nature of yesterday’s game …
“Well, (Belmont head coach Cameron Newbauer) was looking at it a little different than I was. My idea of fun is maybe playing a round of golf or maybe going out and sitting on a beach for a few hours. That was a really challenging game yesterday. But, if you’re a fan, if I don’t have any skin in the game, and I’m just watching the men’s tournament or the women’s tournament and they’re going back and forth, like I heard yesterday Oregon State and Long Beach State was a great game. So as a fan, I might enjoy watching that. Maybe, at some point, I’ll put that game on and enjoy that because it was both teams really answering challenges in the game. I was so impressed with our team. I thought Belmont was fantastic and did some great things, but they really, really stressed and challenged our team. And with the response of our team, that was awesome to watch. It was a great game and we’ll need to play great tomorrow.”

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