LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky's unbeaten record was in danger on Sunday in part because the Wildcats couldn't keep Evelyn Akhator on the court.
That she was in Rupp Arena at all is one more reason to believe a season that offers an NCAA tournament regional here is just getting started.
Even before No. 8 Kentucky remained unbeaten with a 71-61 win against No. 13 Duke, history suggested the Wildcats were at the very least a contender to reach the Final Four for the first time. But the win, not so much the accomplishment in beating a team ranked below the Wildcats, offered something more.
Kentucky won on both sides of the ball, holding Duke's Rebecca Greenwell without a field goal and limiting Azurá Stevens to inefficient totals. And the Wildcats didn't hand the ball to their best player and ask her to save the day, at least not for most of the night.
They did enough of everything, including 18 points from Akhator, slowed only by the referees' whistles. In the 24 minutes she played, Kentucky outscored Duke by 15 points. Look again at the final score, and you can figure out what happened during the time she wasn't out there.
It was a complete performance from the Wildcats that would not have happened, could not have happened, if not for a decision in May. It was then that Akhator, a junior college standout at Chipola College in Florida, chose Kentucky instead of other schools with similar aspirations.
For all the focus on those who left, Kentucky's season took shape when Akhator arrived.
"It wouldn't look nearly as good as it looks now if we hadn't gotten her, I can tell you that," coach Matthew Mitchell said.
At 10-0 with a road win at Arizona State and home wins against Louisville and Duke (Sunday's 17,150 fans were the fourth-largest crowd in school history), it looks promising.
Monday's AP Top 25 will be the seventh poll of the season. Coaches will invariably talk about caring more where their teams are ranked at the end than with shopping days remaining before Christmas. But recent history suggests something different. Of the 40 teams that reached the Final Four in the past 10 years, 36 were ranked ninth or better at this point in the season.
"[Akhator] might be the MVP of this team. Without her, I'm not sure what they do. She is a bruiser." Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie on Kentucky's Evelyn Akhator
This doesn't condemn the likes of Florida State, Tennessee or UCLA to irrelevance. It doesn't make it any less enjoyable to wonder about which unranked teams, if not Final Four material, could nonetheless spoil a supposed contender's season in March. It does mean it's time to take closer looks at the top.
Kentucky came out and attacked what appeared to be Duke's advantage, even with 6-foot-4 reserve Kendall Cooper not enrolled this spring.
"We were horrendous defensively inside; there's nothing else to say about that," said Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie, whose Blue Devils are winless this season against ranked opponents. "You wouldn't expect them to be able to capitalize like that against our players. Our players got in foul trouble immediately, and that cost us, whether it was Oderah Chidom, Azura, Lynee [Belton]. That was very disappointing because that's certainly not where the strength is of Kentucky."
By the end of the first quarter, Akhator had 12 points. Duke had 13. She also had two fouls, which kept her on the bench the entire second quarter.
"Don't get me wrong, [Akhator] might be the MVP of this team,' McCallie said. "Without her, I'm not sure what they do. She is a bruiser."
It is clear whose team Kentucky is as soon as the players are introduced before games. An in-state product and the daughter of a former men's basketball standout for the Wildcats, Makayla Epps has both the skill and charisma to be the face of a team -- a really good team. Maybe it's more so here than anywhere else, but she looks comfortable in those shoes. Midway through the fourth quarter, she crashed hard into some fans seated in courtside seats but had to jump back into the action when the ball remained in play. When the game finally paused after another trip up and down the court, Epps made her way over to the seats and high fived the same fans. How many players would be that calm and that aware of their surroundings in a close game in front of more than 17,000 fans?
But Epps is also reluctant to force the issue at times. She played 40 minutes against Duke, and yet with five minutes remaining in the third quarter, she had taken one shot even though she traveled to the free throw line a few times in that span.
She walked the line perfectly, stepping up with big points down the stretch, but it is a fine line.
"I feel like my assist game is what got me flowing tonight," Epps said. "I wasn't overly aggressive or looking to score early. I was dishing the ball. And I love when I get an assist to Janee [Thompson] or Maci [Morris] on a big 3. It really excites me."
That works as long as they hit those 3-pointers or as long as Akhator scores in the paint.
A season ago, eighth-ranked Kentucky lost by 21 points at Duke and made just 2 of 24 3-point attempts. The Wildcats lost at home against the Blue Devils a season before that and made just 3 of 15 3-point attempts. The Wildcats hit five 3-pointers in Sunday's win, but they attempted just nine treys. They defended and they got the ball inside, more often than not to Akhator.
"What you must do is you must establish a paint presence," Mitchell said. "You have to; you have to go right at them. They're very big and athletic, but you cannot quick-shoot the basketball. So 'attack the paint early' was on the board. It was something that was emphasized all week long. It was a great, great accomplishment for us to outscore them in the paint."
Born in Nigeria, Akhator spoke in quiet, halting sentences after the game. In thanking her teammates for getting her the ball, she drew grins from Epps and Thompson, no small piece of the puzzle herself with 17 points nearly a year removed from a gruesome injury that ended her season. It was a contrast to a player who gave up inches to both Stevens and Chidom on the court but played with more ferocity than either. Sometimes that intensity was directed at teammates, bellowing at Batouly Camara to move when the freshman was slow to vacate the block on one set. Later, it was a referee on the receiving end of animated protests; Epps deftly eased herself in front of her teammate as a buffer.
"She gets really emotional and upset with herself sometimes when she thinks that she's letting us down," Thompson said. "But that just comes from a place of love. She wants to do the best for us and for the team, and we try to give that back to her. She's a really hard worker, and I'm just proud of the way she played tonight."
It takes no great insight to observe what her teammates think of her.
"She's taken more charges in [single] games than I have in my whole career," Epps said.
As McCallie said when asked to compare Kentucky to South Carolina and Texas A&M, the other SEC teams to beat Duke this season, the challenges posed by the former are unlike anything Kentucky or most of the country has seen. In speaking about both his team and the standout performer on this night, Mitchell returned to how much room for improvement remains -- a gap that must be closed before two games against South Carolina and another against Tennessee in the span of three weeks in January and early February.
"We are by no means a perfect basketball team," Mitchell said.
But they became a team capable of playing a complete game in May.