By LARRY VAUGHT
CHICAGO — After she failed to make the USA Basketball tryout roster, Marion County’s Makayla Epps figured she had no chance to be a McDonald’s All-American.
“I thought maybe I just wasn’t good enough and when I did get picked, it meant so much to me. Knowing I get this opportunity means the world to me,” said Epps.
She’s here now to play in the McDonald’s All-American Game Wednesday (7 p.m. on ESPNU) at the United Center.
“I know a lot of the players. I have seen them in AAU tournaments and their names are real big out there,” Epps said. “You have players on North Carolina, Duke and Notre Dame. I am going to be out there with the best of the best. It is exciting.
“Just the game itself at the United Center is special. Derrick Rose (of the Chicago Bulls) is my favorite player, so I will be out there playing where he played at. Then going to the Ronald McDonald House was a great thing to do, too.”
Epps, a 5-10 point guard led Marion to a perfect 39-0 record and Marion’s first state tournament title in eight appearances. Epps averaged a team-high 23.0 points, 5.5 assists, 4.3 steals and 5.5 rebounds per game. She also was named the Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year and is a three-time All-State honoree who scored over 3,300 points in her prep career. She was also named Kentucky’s Miss Basketball.
“She is a true leader. She is one of those students that crosses all sub-groups in the school. It is not like she is just strictly an athlete or in that clique. All the kids know Makayla and she has relationships with all the kids,” Marion High School principal Stacey Hall, a former high school coach, said.
“It does not matter who they are. She is that one student if you know there is something going on and you just talk to Makayla, she will help you out to either solve the problem, stop the problem or give you information that will help us get to the root of the problem. She is one of those people who is going to be sorely missed from the standpoint of leaderships. She goes all the way across the board to kids who look up to her and she is friends with them.”
Marion hung a banner in the gym recognizing her being the school’s first McDonald’s All-American during a sendoff ceremony to Chicago for her last week.
“I have learned in seven years that Marion County has a very supportive fan base and great history. It just solidifies the legacy she has here and one-upping her dad (Anthony Epps) and getting out of his shadow and the great player and competitor he was by being part of the McDonald’s game,” Hall said. “As long as this school stands, she will always be the talk of this community along with this team. We are seeing history being made with her.”
Her father also helped Marion win a state title and was a starter on Kentucky’s 1996 national championship team. His daughter, who originally gave a verbal commitment to Louisville, signed with the Wildcats in November.
“She is laid back. I really truly believe she would rather be at Panama City Beach (Fla.) with her friends and enjoying the beach, but I think once she realizes being with these other great players and doing all these events they have planned let’s her see what being a McDonald’s All-American is all about,” Anthony Epps, one of many Marion fans expected her for Wednesday night’s game, said. “To be in history with some of the greatest to ever play the game of basketball is really special and that will eventually sink in for her.”
Marion head coach Trent Milby believes his star understands the value of being in this game.
“She loves basketball, so she knows who has played in McDonald’s games. She is very smart IQ-wise about the game,” Milby said. “She is a big deal in Marion County already. She won a state championship. They know she is good and probably the best this county has ever seen or will and they are proud of that.”
Hall expects a lot of Marion fans who can’t come to Chicago will be watching the game on ESPN to support Epps.
“Not only the kids in the high school, but the smaller kids, the teachers across the district. She has connections with all of them. Everybody will watch to show their support,” Hall said. “Of all the players I have ever seen, she is one of the best. She is the best girls player I have ever seen and I would put her up against any guy that I have seen, and I’ve seen a lot of good ones. She is just special. She knows how to play the game and she has got better in the seven years I have known her every year. She’ll do great in this game.”
Anthony Epps appreciates all the good things in Marion and across the state have said about his daughter.
“The highest compliment you can get as a parent is to have people tell you she is a sweet daughter and she is this and she is that outside of basketball,” Anthony Epps said. “People come up to me all the time saying that. A lot of people who have not seen her ask me what type person she is and I tell them once you meet her, I will let you make your own judgment.
“But to me she is a wonderful young lady and I can’t ask for a better child. She is an excellent role model for her younger siblings as well because they look up to her and really love her. It’s truly a blessing to have a daughter like her and I am so proud she’s playing in this game.”
So is Milby, who says 10 years from now he’ll still recall how special she was.
“I will always remember how good she was, how skilled she was and how good she was in the open floor,” Milby said. “She is so strong that people just bounce off her. In 10 years she will still be the best guard Kentucky has ever seen. All I had to do was just give her the ball. You never had to worry about getting the ball up the floor.”
He’ll also remember how she interacted with teammates despite the numerous accolades she received.
“They all respected each other. Makayla knows she needed those others to do what she is doing. She was one of them. The chemistry was great. They could care less about points, steals and rebounds. They just went out there to win and she was one of them all the way,” Milby said.