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Makayla Epps’ suspension is completed

If everything goes as expected the next two days, Kentucky likely will have star guard Makayla Epps back for the game against Arizona State.

The First Team All-Southeastern Conference player missed the opener while finishing out the terms of her suspension for an off-season incident. She also was healing up from a concussion she sustained in practice last week.

Epps’ suspension is complete, Coach Matthew Mitchell confirmed on Friday. “I’m really proud of the progress she’s made as a person at this time,” he said. “She’s really grown a lot and she’ll have a great opportunity to have a great junior season.”

Epps, who was vocal on the UK bench and dancing a little in warmups, is still working her way through the concussion protocol, still needing to make it through a contact practice on Saturday morning to be cleared to play, but Mitchell said he was optimistic.

“We’re hopeful she’ll feel good tomorrow and be available Sunday,” he said of the guard who led UK in scoring last season at 14.9 points a game. “She’ll be a big boost for us.”

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Newcomers push UK to 72-39 victory in season opener

With injuries and suspensions limiting Kentucky’s available personnel in its season opener, the Cats were going to rely on newcomers.

And the newcomers didn’t disappoint in No. 17 UK’s 72-39 victory over Rice on Friday night at Memorial Coliseum.

True freshmen Maci Morris, Taylor Murray and Batouly Camara combined to score 32 points and junior college transfer Evelyn Akhator added 16 points and 17 rebounds in the victory.

The Cats were without First Team All-Southeastern Conference player Makayla Epps, who missed the game as the final piece of her suspension for an offseason issue. And UK is without forward Alyssa Rice, who is out with a foot injury.

UK did OK without them, with all eight players who played scoring, including four in double figures. The Cats shot 50 percent from the field and outrebouned the Owls 41-29.

Morris had 16 points, including making three of five three-point field goal tries. Alexis Jennings added 10 points and nine rebounds.

Kentucky held the Owls without a field goal the entire first quarter and grabbed a 19-2 lead behind eight straight points from Morris, the Miss Kentucky Basketball.

Rice missed its first 13 field goals of the game and trailed by as many as 26 points midway through the second quarter before using a 10-2 run to pull within 32-14. UK held the Owls to 24 percent shooting in the first half while shooting nearly 50 percent.

The Cats (1-0) led 34-16 at the break behind 10 points each from Morris and Murray, who finished with 12 points and four steals.

Shani Rainey paced Rice (0-1) with 10 points.

The road gets much tougher for Kentucky right away with the Cats going on the road to face No. 15 Arizona State. The Sun Devils return four starters from a team that went 29-6 last season and advanced to the NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen.

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Mitchell: UK not rushing Epps’ return

Kentucky star Makayla Epps still has not been cleared to practice after suffering a concussion less than a week ago in practice.

The junior, who was going to miss the opener on Friday night per the terms of her suspension for an offseason incident, will continue to be monitored, Coach Matthew Mitchell said on Thursday.

“Today’s a big day for her just to see where she is, but one thing you have to make certain is that you take care of the player and we’re just going to not rush into anything and make sure she’s ready to roll when it’s time,” Mitchell said of Epps, a First Team All-Southeastern Conference guard who led UK in scoring last season at 14.9 points a game.

She would be a big lift on Sunday when the No. 17 Cats travel to No. 15 Arizona State. The Sun Devils return four starters from a team that went 29-6 last season and advanced to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.

But Mitchell said there is “no pressure for Epps to play on Sunday whatsoever. … She really got her bell rung there and it’s been a tough thing to get past, but she’s doing well. And we anticipate her making a full recovery, we just don’t know when.”


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Star guard Epps has concussion

Makayla Epps, who already was going to miss the exhibition and season opener while finishing out the terms of her suspension for an off-the-court issue this spring, was not on the Kentucky bench Sunday.

The junior guard and UK’s leading scorer last season suffered a concussion in practice on Friday after taking an elbow to the nose. The staff decided to have her rest at home instead of dealing with the lights and sounds of Memorial Coliseum.

“She got her bell rung pretty hard, so she’s just trying to rest the past couple of days,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said of Epps, who is going through the regular concussion protocol. “We feel like she’s progressing well and we hope she can get back into practice this week.”

The plan is to have her back on the bench on Friday night for the season opener against Rice at Memorial Coliseum.

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Rice out a month with foot injury

Kentucky sophomore Alyssa Rice will be out at least a month with a stress reaction in her right foot, Coach Matthew Mitchell confirmed on Wednesday. The month-long timeline would have the 6-foot-3 forward, who averaged 2.9 points and 2.7 rebounds a game last season, back in early December.

Her injury will make an already thin Kentucky bench a bit thinner for the exhibition game on Sunday and the opener on Nov. 13 when UK will be without Makayla Epps, who is sitting out both per the terms of her offseason suspension.

That means that five players who have never played in a UK jersey — Evelyn Akhator, Batouly Camara, Maci Morris, Taylor Murray and Ivana Jakubcova — will join returners Alexis Jennings and Janee Thompson and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, who are both getting back to 100 percent after surgeries.

Epps will be able to return to the floor for the Cats’ trip to No. 15 Arizona State for the second game of the regular season on Nov. 15.

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Rich becomes third player to leave UK

Another Kentucky women’s basketball player is leaving the program, this time a true freshman that had yet to play.

Morgan Rich, a 5-foot-10 guard from Scottsville, will transfer, the school said on Tuesday night.

Rich becomes the third player to leave the program in as many weeks behind starting guard Linnae Harper, who unexpectedly asked for a release last week, and Chrishae Rowe, who was dismissed by Matthew Mitchell in October “for failure to uphold standards of the program.”

Rich averaged 20 points and seven rebounds in her senior season at Allen County-Scottsville. She was her high school’s all-time leading scorer with 2,433 points and set the school’s single-game scoring record with 45 points.

“We appreciate Morgan’s work while she was part of our program and wish her nothing but continued success,” Mitchell said in a statement through the school. The guard has been granted an unconditional release.

Rich, who was rated the 93rd best player in the 2015 class by ESPN, had to sit out Big Blue Madness in October because she had not met certain program standards to practice, a UK spokesman said at the time.

The Kentucky women have an exhibition on Sunday at 5 p.m. with the season opener on Friday, Nov. 13 at Memorial Coliseum.

With Makayla Epps serving out the remainder of her suspension that night, UK will have nine scholarship players available for the opener.

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Cats in the preseason polls

Pretty much all of the major preseason polls predict Kentucky is a top 25 team, but there are still a lot of questions about the Cats.

Kentucky, which was knocked out of the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, will start the preseason ranked No. 18 by the Associated Press. It is the Cats’ lowest preseason ranking since 2010 when they became a regular in the NCAA Tournament.

Other preseason polls have UK similarly situated with the USA Today coaches’ poll listing UK at No. 17. Athlon has UK at No. 19 and Lindy’s has the Cats at No. 18.

The Cats will have an interesting non-conference start with a game at preseason No. 15 Arizona State the second of the season (the first game back for Makayla Epps after her off-season suspension) and then games against No. 8 Louisville and No. 14 Duke at Rupp Arena in December.

Things don’t get any easier when Southeastern Conference play begins with five league teams ranked in the top 25, including No. 2 South Carolina, No. 4 Tennessee, No. 11 Mississippi State and No. 13 Texas A&M.


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Star guard Harper asks for transfer

One of Kentucky’s leading returning players, Linnae Harper, has decided to part ways with the school, an official confirmed on Monday night.

In a lengthy statement posted to her Twitter account, the 5-foot-8 guard and former McDonald’s All-American does not say why she decided to leave UK nor where she plans to go, saying instead that “the decision was not easy for me.

“But with the support from my family and continuously praying, I have come to the conclusion that I will not finish my career here at UK,” she said, noting that it was one of the toughest decisions of her life.

Attempts to reach Harper and her mother, Ericka, were unsuccessful.

In a statement released through a team spokesman, Coach Matthew Mitchell confirmed that Harper was planning to transfer. He has not yet said if there will be any limitations put on her destination.

“We appreciate everything Linnae gave our program in her two years here and we wish her nothing but the best on and off the court moving forward,” Mitchell said in the statement.

Harper was one of three returning starters for Kentucky this season, leading the Cats in rebounding at 7.1 boards a game last season while scoring 9.2 points a game. She was named a member of the Southeastern Conference’s All-Defensive Team.

The Chicago native, who was high school teammates with UK senior point guard Janee Thompson, played in 69 games for the Cats with 17 starts, all last season.

In her statement, Harper thanked everyone connected with Kentucky, from coaches, teammates, administrators and fans.

To her teammates, Harper said that the “bond that we have can never be broken even being miles away. I love each and every one of you.”

To the UK staff, Harper said: “the loyalty you all showed me will never go unnoticed.”

Early in the letter after thanking the school’s president and athletics director, she thanks Mitchell for “investing his time into me.

“He has been a help in guiding me into becoming a great woman of substance and person of character.”

The 2013 McDonald’s All-American was a member of the Pan American team that won a silver medal this summer. She spent most of the summer away from the team and team activities. Mitchell attended one of her games in Toronto.

In an interview with the Herald-Leader two weeks ago, Mitchell said Harper was still trying to get back up to speed after playing internationally this summer and that she was doing extra work in the mornings.

Her time away “created a challenge because they play a different pace than we play, so it’s just a transition for her to get back,” Mitchell said. “She’s a little bit further behind where she would be, but it’s not anything I’m real concerned about. … It’s been tough on her, but she’ll get back there.”

At the Kentucky Media Day a week ago, the junior guard said she was excited about the team, which she said had formed a strong bond.

“We’re much younger than last year, but this year I think we have just as much talent,” she said. The effort, how hard we work is very high and the expectations within ourselves are high so we can come out together, have chemistry and play hard and do what we do best.”

The bond was off the court, too, she said, listing it among her favorite things.

“We’re all very nice and close,” Harper continued. “Off the court, we spend a lot of time together and I think that will help us on the court when we hit adversity and face obstacles.”

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UK picked fifth; Epps preseason All-SEC

Several national preseason national polls have Kentucky in the top 20, but it might only be good enough to get the Cats to the middle of the road in the Southeastern Conference.

The preseason media poll has Kentucky picked fifth overall behind South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi State and Texas A&M in a release sent out by the league on Tuesday afternoon.

The Gamecocks, who won the regular-season conference and tournament championship, return their top three scorers and top two rebounders from last season. They are coming off the program’s first NCAA Tournament Final Four appearance.

South Carolina returns senior guard Tiffany Mitchell, whom the media overwhelmingly voted as the preseason SEC Player of the Year, as well as star post players Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson.

All three were picked to be preseason All-SEC in the voting, as was Makayla Epps, who led Kentucky in scoring last season.

Order of finish: 1. South Carolina; 2. Tennessee; 3. Mississippi State; 4. Texas A&M; 5. Kentucky; 6. Ole Miss; 7. Missouri; 8. Arkansas; T9. Georgia; T9. LSU; 11. Vanderbilt; 12. Florida; 13. Auburn; 14. Alabama.

Preseason All-SEC: Makayla Epps, Kentucky; Victoria Vivians, Mississippi State; Alaina Coates, South Carolina; Tiffany Mitchell, South Carolina; A’ja Wilson, South Carolina; Diamond DeShields, Tennessee

Player of the Year: Tiffany Mitchell, South Carolina

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