Makayla Epps' return after injury inspires Kentucky to Sweet 16

Thompson, Kentucky move past Oklahoma (1:52)

ESPN's Carol Ross and Cara Capuano break down the performance of Kentucky senior Janee Thompson during the Wildcats' 79-58 win over the Oklahoma Sooners. (1:52)

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The back page of Kentucky's exhaustive 56-page packet of notes for its NCAA tournament second-round game against Oklahoma was devoted to a graphic touting Makayla Epps' All-American bona fides. A picture of Epps rested beneath her name in oversized font, which stood in stark contrast to the small print and statistical minutiae that preceded it. And it made a convincing case: Kentucky wouldn't be where it is without Epps.

Well, technically, the Wildcats would be. They would be home in Lexington, which is where they spent Monday night and where they will remain this weekend. But they wouldn't have been a No. 3 seed that played at home, and they wouldn't have any more games to play, if not for the star of a team bound for the Sweet 16 at nearby Rupp Arena after a 79-58 win against the Sooners.

The pivotal moments of one basketball game offered an illustration of how much one player means to a program. Just as her unplanned exit in the third quarter with a shoulder injury coincided with the first seeds of an Oklahoma run that eventually cut an almost game-long deficit to a single possession, her return coincided with the responding run that put the game away and allowed the Wildcats to celebrate a fifth Sweet 16.

The name Willis Reed didn't ring any bells with Epps, who was born decades after the former New York Knicks star famously limped back from injury for Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, but there was an element of that toughness to her return in this game, injured arm hanging limply at her side.

The thing that history tends to forget is that Reed didn't do much that night. His presence mattered far more than his production.

So on the same night Washington stunned Maryland with Kelsey Plum scoring 32 points on 24 field goal attempts and 13 made free throws, and in the same tournament in which Ohio State's Kelsey Mitchell and South Florida's Courtney Williams almost single-handedly won games with similarly staggering shot totals, Kentucky took the load off of its star's shoulders, even before that became a physical necessity.

Kentucky's win illustrated a different way for star and team to coexist.

"We're not stacked, like, say, UConn is, but we've got a very talented team," Epps said. "I don't have to take 25, 30 shots. ... I see [those other stars] taking that many shots and I'm like 'Dang, I don't even think my teammates would pass me the ball [that much].' I think the most I ever took was 20, and that was just because I was hot."

Epps finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists, numbers remarkably in line with her season averages -- even though she went down with an injury. Kentucky advanced to the next round because of early 3-point shooting from freshman Maci Morris, late clutch shooting from senior Janee Thompson and post contributions on both ends from Alexis Jennings.

"I feel like not having to take that many shots is good," Epps said. "Tonight really wasn't my night. Janee stepped up big, Taylor Murray stepped up big, Alexis stepped up big. If one of us ain't on, we have more people that can make plays for us. I think that works in our favor."

One of the starters on perhaps the greatest college team of all time, the unbeaten Connecticut team that also featured Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Diana Taurasi, Kentucky assistant Tamika Williams-Jeter knows something about the kind of arrangement in which Epps thrives.

"At times, she knows that it has to happen," Williams said of taking over. "But more times, because of who she is, that doesn't have to happen like it does at other schools. You see a Kelsey Mitchell score 40-something points and shoot 20-something free throws and it's 85-81, so they needed every point. For us, it's a different story. We don't want to put that much pressure on a kid. We need our whole team to be really good for us to be good.

"We couldn't have Makayla score 45; we would lose games."

The production has to come from other people. And it has to come from inside and outside. Most often, the former is through Evelyn Akhator, who entered the game against Oklahoma as the only player other than Epps and Thompson to average double-digit points per game. But in a game plagued by fouls on both ends of the court, Akhator picked up two in short order and played just four minutes in the first half. And Jennings didn't play as well on the offensive end as she would have liked in the first half. She still had four blocks before halftime and helped stymie the Sooners in the paint, but she made just one of seven field goal attempts in those first 20 minutes.

She had seven points, six rebounds and two more blocks in the second half.

"I just changed my mindset in the second half," Jennings said. "My coaches and my teammates were telling me to be positive. I just started to believe in myself -- not to say I didn't in the first half, but they gave me a big boost. I felt like I could be the energy for the team."

"We couldn't have Makayla score 45; we would lose games." Kentucky assistant coach Tamika Williams-Jeter

Williams said that probably would not have been the reaction a season ago. As a freshman, Jennings would have more likely let the first-half shooting linger into the second half. But just as freshmen Morris and Murray grew into prominent roles and Thompson settled in as a go-to scorer, Jennings improved throughout the season. She had space to do so with a star who was happier to feed her the ball than force shots.

"I feel like when Alexis gets the ball one-on-one with a post player, she's either going to score or get fouled," Epps said. "There's not too much of a chance that the ball is going to bounce a different way other than that. She's real deliberate with her moves, she's real decisive, she's real heady about it. I have a lot of confidence when she gets the ball down on the block that she's going to score.

"And she took two tremendous charges that gave us a lot of momentum, too."

Ah yes, those charges. When Kentucky players don't take charges deemed available to them -- when they shy away from paying that price -- the whole team runs sprints before practice. The team has run more than a few sprints this year, Williams said, because of Jennings.

In a game in which the referees made the charges abundantly available, she took two that mattered.

Quiet fell over Memorial Coliseum when Epps landed hard on the court after a foul from Oklahoma's Gioya Carter in the third quarter. (A hard foul, but not malicious.) She took her free throws and then retreated to the bench in obvious pain.

"I've never had like a true injury while playing basketball, so it was different for me," Epps said. "It was just a lot of instant pain. I couldn't really lift my arm -- when I was shooting, everything was hurting."

Yet it was remarkable how little air escaped the arena, even as trainers worked on her shoulder at the end of the bench and even as she disappeared off the court for what she said was a lidocaine shot. There was palpable concern, of course. Beyond the team's best player, Epps is beloved as a homegrown kid and the daughter of a former standout on the men's team. But there was no panic from the stands or bench, even as the Sooners began to creep closer. Kentucky needed her back, needed the attention she always demands from defenses. The Wildcats needed her in the sense that they needed every part on this night.

The first thing Epps attempted to do after coming back on the court, before she even thought about taking a shot, was take a charge. She didn't get there in time, and hit the ground as a result -- rewarded only with a blocking foul.

"It's good right now," Epps said of what she termed a sprained shoulder. "But when [the shot] wears off, I'll be pretty sore."

Her smile suggested the shoulder is unlikely to be too sore to play in the Sweet 16. That is a stage made for special players. And even if her lines look a little different than those of players like Mitchell, Plum and Williams, she is as special as they are.

Monday night showed how much Epps means to this team, while also shining the spotlight on others.