With big win over Louisville, Kentucky quiets any talk of a crisis in Lexington

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Attendants still checked names off lists at the entrance to a parking lot outside Rupp Arena. Cheerleaders and mascots still loitered in the hallways underneath the stands before the game. Santa Claus, clad in blue, still took the court at halftime and threw T-shirts into a crowd of more than 14,000, most of them also clad in blue. And the band played on.

The band kept playing on the Titanic, too, of course.

But an unseasonably mild December evening didn't feel much like iceberg weather.

The supposedly unsinkable ship, which was undone by something as small as a collision that some felt only as a shudder at the time, also didn't have Makayla Epps at the helm.

Unbeaten and ranked seventh in the nation entering Thursday's game, Kentucky still has the upper hand against its closest and biggest rival after a 72-54 win against Louisville. It has the best player in the state at the moment in Epps; the junior guard was nearly perfect on this night.

If Kentucky has a crisis on its hands, it hid it well.

Like any good theater, a basketball arena can hide a considerable amount of chaos occurring backstage. We don't know if there is more going on behind the scenes after four players departed Kentucky's women's basketball team in a matter of months, three by their choice and one by dismissal. We don't know if the cluster represents an aberration or an indication.

We do know the team that remains is 8-0 and looked the part in this game.

"I've told people that have asked me that this team that I'm currently on is probably going to be my favorite team to play on," said Epps, who finished with 24 points on 10-of-11 shooting from the field. "Out of the years I've been here and the years coming, my junior year team. Just the fact that, this team, we battle every day in practice. We go against each other, we go against our practice guys, we go at it with our coaches challenging us and everything like that. So it's just real positive to see a game like this, to see everybody play how they did tonight. We played a really solid game, really solid Kentucky game tonight."

The team in red-and-black, however, was out of sorts from the beginning. Seconds after Kentucky controlled the tip, Epps went over a screen and knocked down an unobstructed shot. After a 3-pointer from Wildcats freshman Maci Morris, Epps hit another open mid-range jumper to make it 7-0 inside of two minutes.

Forget leads; Louisville spent 49 seconds within one possession of tying the rest of the night.

"I really was," Epps said when asked if she was surprised to be open on so many occasions. "I don't know if Louisville thinks I can't shoot, but if that's what they think, that's fine. There's probably a lot of people in the country who don't respect me as a jump shooter, but that's fine."

Louisville coach Jeff Walz made it clear that those open looks were not the plan. They came nonetheless.

Epps totaled 15 points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals in the first half. She didn't miss a shot until barely a minute remained before the break. Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said after the game there were a couple of moments when he thought the rivalry influenced his star's decision-making, but he must have had better eyes than most.

In a game in which approaching a single-digit margin was the closest approximation of drama, Epps saved the best of her performance for a sequence that put the game away.

Louisville cut the lead to 10 points with a little more than three minutes remaining in the third quarter. A timeout by Mitchell slowed Louisville's momentum. More importantly, it signaled Epps' return from a brief rest. Within eight seconds of the sideline inbounds, she received the ball on the left wing, blew by her defender and finished on the other side of the basket to draw a foul and the opportunity for a three-point play.

She missed that free throw, but after the Cardinals again cut the lead to 10 points on their next trip down the floor, Epps set up on the opposite wing on offense, split two defenders on a pick-and-roll, kept her dribble close enough to the court to merit a look from the Harlem Globetrotters and finished a difficult shot for another three-point opportunity. She finished this one.

Louisville never did cut the deficit back to single digits.

There are not a lot of flawless teams out there. Ohio State can't rebound. Tennessee can't shoot 3-pointers. Notre Dame can't keep all its pieces on the court. And those are contenders. So yes, Kentucky's depth -- six players played 24 minutes or more Thursday -- is going to be an issue, especially as Duke visits in little more than a week and SEC play begins soon thereafter. The Wildcats would have more tools at their disposal if rising star Linnae Harper or reserve Kyvin Goodin-Rogers -- two of the four subtractions -- had remained and remained content.

But this win was about what does remain, not just a star in Epps and not just the most efficient 3-point shooting the program has had in some time. Mitchell talked after the win about challenging Morris in a recent win against Northern Kentucky to play better defense -- to play any defense, for that matter. Louisville went at her early in this game. She gave them nothing.

This isn't North Carolina, where defections decimated a program.

The answers on the court aren't the only ones worth seeking, but they count for something.

"I'm as excited to see what we can become as I have been in a long time." Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell

"I think that if you are striving to be the best leader possible, which is what I'm trying to always develop into, there are always moments when you're trying to really search and understand if you're on the right path," Mitchell said of the turmoil. "I think that I would not be very effective if I didn't at times question what's going on, and you really try to examine what's going on.

"There were some days when you wonder how it's all going to work out."

He talked about those days in the past tense. For Walz, the concern is present tense.

Among the words the coach chose to describe his team's defense, and in turn its desire, were "terrible" and "disgusting." And those words, offered in typically earnest fashion but also seething, came nearly an hour after the game when he addressed the media.

"Unfortunately, this is the first team we've had here that is more concerned about scoring than guarding somebody," Walz said. "[Defense is] what we've done. We take pride in guarding people. We take pride in getting after it defensively. And there just wasn't much tonight."

Walz invited all on hand to come to practice Friday afternoon if they wanted a good show. He would come prepared to go forward. Some of the players, he noted, might not make it.

Even if only metaphorically, he was the only coach this night talking about a team adrift.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the crowd inside Rupp commenced with the familiar "Go Big Blue" chant. It sounded satisfied.

It didn't sound like the false bravado of a sinking ship.

"I'm as excited to see what we can become as I have been in a long time," Mitchell said. "Really, really excited to see what this team can finish up and do because they have a great heart for working and they will listen to coaching and they will try their hardest to do what we're asking them to do."