No matter how this ends, Makayla Epps wouldn't trade anything for having been able to play for Kentucky. And she's hoping to take one more road trip with the Wildcats.
That would mean going to the Women's Final Four, something Kentucky has never done. The Wildcats have made it to the Elite Eight four times.
To advance further, Kentucky has to win four games at home in Lexington: two in their area, Memorial Coliseum, and then two at nearby Rupp Arena, about a mile away. Achieve that, and the Wildcats will head to Dallas and a program breakthrough. But all of it will be difficult, starting with their opener Friday (ESPN2/WatchESPN, 12:10 p.m. ET).
The No. 4 seed Wildcats face No. 13 seed Belmont, the Ohio Valley champion that is 27-5 overall and on a 21-game winning streak. Kentucky (21-10) finished tied for third in the SEC and fell in the league tournament semifinals to South Carolina. If the Wildcats get past Belmont, they will face No. 5 seed Ohio State, the regular-season Big Ten co-champion, or No. 12 Western Kentucky, the Conference USA champion.
But there's good news for the Wildcats. Starting guard Taylor Murray, who missed the SEC semifinal versus South Carolina after suffering a strained neck in a quarterfinal victory over Alabama, is expected to return.
Advancing the short distance to Rupp will take two really strong games from Kentucky. Then No. 1 seed Notre Dame would likely await in the Sweet 16. But just to be here in this position is something Epps, coach Matthew Mitchell, and the Wildcats should take pride in achieving.
"Back in September, I didn't have a feel for anything," Epps said of Kentucky's prospects after a difficult offseason marked by player and assistant departures. "But I had a lot of faith in Coach Mitchell and knew he was going to do everything in his power to help the six players who returned to have a good season.
"Once we got our 12-player roster filled out, we came in here and worked every day. I feel like we did exceed not necessarily our expectations, but the expectations of everyone outside of this building."
The Wildcats had this same opportunity last year with early-round games and a regional in Lexington, but fell in the Sweet 16 to eventual Final Four participant Washington.
The ensuing spring was chaotic, to be succinct, as nine players either transferred or decommitted from Kentucky since the previous fall, and Mitchell had to revamp his coaching staff.
Epps has been there through it all. The 5-foot-10 guard now faces her final opportunities as a Wildcat with the normal sadness of a senior, but the satisfaction of knowing this was a difficult season to navigate. She did it, averaging 17.2 points and getting 112 assists, both team highs.
"With the uphill battle we had to go through to just assemble a team after all the turmoil last spring, it shows a lot," Epps said. "Kentucky is a really gutsy team, and we are going to fight. I'm sure a lot of people counted us out, after all the kids who left. But we've won some big games and hung in there with the best of them."
Their biggest victory was the 78-75 overtime triumph against then No. 3-ranked Mississippi State on Feb. 23, senior night for Epps and forward Evelyn Akhator, who averaged a double-double this season (15.8 PPG, 10.5 RPG). Akhator, who played her first two years at Chipola Junior College in Florida, is from Lagos, Nigeria. She became good friends with Epps, who is from Lebanon, Kentucky, about 60 miles southwest of Lexington.
They combined for 49 points in the win over the Bulldogs, which helped Kentucky in securing a top-16 NCAA seed and getting to host the early rounds.
That night was special for Epps on another level, because as a toddler, she had been part of her father's senior night as a Wildcat. Anthony Epps, who played for Kentucky's 1996 national champions, had little Makayla on court with him when he had his farewell at Rupp Arena in 1997. He also coached her at Marion County High School.
And although Makayla had a brief period of thinking she might go to -- gasp -- Louisville, she ended up wearing the blue and white that was essentially in her blood.
"It's something that my dad and I are always going to be able to share and talk about," Epps said. "Nothing will ever take that away. It was really fun for me to have No. 25 be 'Epps' for the men, and later on for the women's team, too. I'm blessed to have the opportunity to do it. And I'm really grateful I took the route to come to Kentucky."