By LARRY VAUGHT
When she verbally committed to Kentucky before the start of her junior season, Bell County standout Maci Morris knew she would be in for extra scrutiny wherever she played.
“It has been exciting personally for me. Playing the games has not been much different. Being a commit, I know people are going to be out to stop me because they think she is a commit and I will show her she is not that good. It motivates me to play that much harder and make my team better and push them so we can win games,” said Morris. “My teammates are really excited for me and proud of me, so that helps. I love them to death and they are so enthusiastic about my play and success.”
Morris, who has started for Bell County since she was a seventh-grader, says she always feels a “little pressure as the go-to person” on her team.
“Being a commit is not any more pressure on me because I am used to having pressure all my life. It is not really any different to deal with pressure every game,” she said.
Morris — a 6-foot prospect — visited UK several times and coach Matthew Mitchell had recruited her for over two years. He was at all of Morris’ AAU games with the Kentucky Premier squad over the summer. Premier is the same program that current UK freshmen Makayla Epps and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers played for.
Last season, she averaged 21 points and 8.5 rebounds and led Bell to the 13th Region title game where she had 27 points and 13 rebounds in a loss to Corbin. She averaged 16 points per game in the eighth grade and averaged 19.9 points and 8.5 rebounds for the Lady Cats her sophomore season.
”She still has room for improvement but her work ethic is really good,” Bell coach David Teague said. “She works hard and she knows she has to keep working to continue to get better.”
She’s ranked as a top 50 player in the 2015 recruiting class and is averaging 26 points and 11 rebounds per game this season and shooting over 50 percent from the field.
“I think Maci is one of the best players in the state. She is very poised and is not easily rattled,” Boyle County coach Greg Edwards said after his team beat Bell even though Morris had 28 points. “She plays within the structure of what her team is trying to accomplish, but also is not afraid to take over the game when she needs to.
“I think she will be a very good player for coach Mitchell. Kentucky plays an uptempo game that features a lot of open court offense. Maci can create off the dribble and she is an accurate shooter. When she gets to Kentucky where they can work on her conditioning and strength she will definitely be an asset.”
Mercer County coach Chris Souder, who coached the Kentucky all-star team last year that included Epps, watched Morris score 31 points in a win over his team.
“Obviously Maci is a very talented young lady,” Souder said. “She definitely looks like a student of the game. She is one of those girls that looks like she is not playing hard but she really is, she is just really smooth. She has great composure. She realizes that everyone is watching and evaluating her and she really seems to take that in stride. She really understands the game and realizes what she means to her team.”
Bell plays a fast-pace style much like what Kentucky uses. Morris does a little bit of everything for Bell, a team lacking size, on both ends.
“We have always been more guard oriented because we don’t have that much size and we have to play fast,” Morris said. “Coach Mitchell loves the run and jump, so it will help me when I get there.”
Souder thinks she will fit well into Kentucky’s program.
“She is a student of the game, so she has the ability to adapt to different styles.She also plays AAU (Kentucky Premier) and they play at a very high level of competition and, from what I hear, she really excels. I don’t think she will have any problems fitting in at Kentucky,” Souder said. “I think her biggest area of growth will be physical strength.
“To play at that high level she will have to have her body transformed. It will help her with her quickness and explosiveness as well. Once she gets stronger and her body catches up with her mind, she will be special in my opinion.”
She’s always been around basketball because her father, Lewis, a former multi-sport high school star in eastern Kentucky, coached. He’s the head coach of the Bell boys team now and played at East Tennessee State and Cumberland College. Her mother, Patti, is from Harlan County and played basketball at Transylvania. She’s also been a coach.
“Since I was born, I was just kind of raised in the gym (she was playing on the middle school team when she was in the second grade) and I have always been around basketball. My family is a basketball family,” she said. “My main hand is my right hand, but my dad pushes me to work on my left hand more so I will be harder to guard.
“Just being raised in a basketball family, my IQ has got a lot better. My dad has helped me with that. I just know the game real well. I can play any position in high school and that helps. I like driving. Pulling up for a jump shot is probably my favorite, but i Like shooting 3’s, too.”
And what does she need to improve?
“Ballhandling and defense especially,” Morris said.
The Bell junior watches Kentucky play a lot.
“They are doing great. I am really proud of them,” Morris said. “Coach Mitchell is doing such a great job with them and they play so hard. That inspires me. I have been around him for a while now and he’s always been a great guy with a lot of energy and that stands out to me and I knew I would love to play for a coach who is so enthusiastic about his players and the program. The players are really close and always joking around. They are really close on the court, too, and have really good chemistry together and you can really tell that when they play together like they and how hard they play for coach Mitchell.”
Mitchell’s in-home visit that prompted Morris to commit to UK before he left has become legendary after Morris’ father said the UK coach ate 18 deviled eggs while he was at their Bell County home.
“He had a lot of eggs and my mom actually made him a to-go box of deviled eggs to take home,” the Bell star said. “She will probably have to bring him some every once in a while at Kentucky, too, because he really liked them.
Morris, who was being recruited by Louisville and several other Division I schools, committed to UK without visiting other colleges.
“I have always just been a huge fan of Kentucky and grew up dreaming of playing there. I just loved coach Mitchell and the coaching staff and the players are all fun to be around and so nice. I just thought it was nice fit for me,” she said. “I grew up a men’s basketball fan, but as I got older I turned into more of a Kentucky women’s fan and now it is about even. My parents are huge UK fans, too.
“Most people in Bell County are Kentucky fans. There are a few Tennessee fans, but they don’t really speak out unless it is football season. So my decision to go to UK was pretty popular.”