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October 22, 2013

Kentucky women's team seeks Final Four breakthrough

Makayla Epps had grown accustomed to having her way on a basketball court, but she knew the rude awakening was coming.

The Kentucky women's basketball freshman -- a McDonald's All-American guard from Lebanon, Ky., and the daughter of former Wildcat point guard Anthony Epps -- knew that she'd be facing guards quicker and more experienced in practice. She suspected things were about to get tougher.

She was right.

"In high school, I could just go out and do whatever I want to," Epps said Tuesday at UK's media day. "But here, I have to work for every basket. I have to work for every drive, every shot. Everything's a challenge. Nothing here is easy."

And that might say more about the depth of talent on Kentucky's 2013-14 roster than it does about Epps, one of the most heavily recruited players in state history.

As Kentucky seeks to take the next step as a program -- the Wildcats have been to three of the last four Elite Eights but never have reached the Final Four -- it has perhaps its most talented team under head coach Matthew Mitchell.

Seven Cats are former McDonald's All-Americans.

Freshmen Epps and Linnae Harper are among the most sought-after recruits ever to sign with Kentucky, and they're "just behind (other players) because of where our program is and the quality of players in it," Mitchell said.

That collection of players has a clear-cut mission.

In 2010, Kentucky reached the Elite Eight before losing 88-68 to Oklahoma. The Cats made it back in 2012 and lost 80-65 to Connecticut. Last season, UConn ended UK's season again in the Elite Eight, 83-53.

"We've been stuck there for a couple of years," sophomore guard Janee Thompson said. "We have images and messages all around that say 'Final Four,' all around our gym and all around the locker room. It's something that we constantly try to visualize and remind ourselves that that's one of our biggest goals, to get over that hump and get to the Final Four."

This is a team -- and a tournament -- built to get Kentucky there.

Not only do the Cats have what Epps called "probably the most talented and skillful team we'll have," but UK could get all the way to the Final Four without earning a single frequent-flyer mile.

Lexington will host opening-round action. Louisville has a regional. Nashville hosts the Final Four.

To position itself for that postseason run, Kentucky has to take care of regular-season business.

"I think we've seen that in the women's game, being a No. 1 seed greatly, greatly enhances your opportunity to go to the Final Four," Mitchell said. "That's just historical."

And historically accurate.

In all but one of the past 10 NCAA Tournaments, at least two No. 1 seeds have reached the Final Four. In 2012, all four did it. Three times in the past 12 years, three of the four Final Four teams were No. 1 seeds.

Mitchell called making the jump to a No. 1 seed "the next logical step" for Kentucky as it tries to build his vision of the program, which he said consistently would be a "top five or six" team in the nation.

"I think that leads you to think about national championships," Mitchell said. "So that's sort of an overall thought that drives you every single day."

It's a thought for the players, too.

" I think we all want to make it to the next step, from the seniors down to the freshmen," said senior Samarie Walker, one of those former McDonald's All-Americans. "It's something that we've been talking about since I've been here, and I think we actually have a chance to do it this year."

Kentucky's been knocking on the door. Reinforcements have arrived to try and knock the thing down.

"I'm gonna do everything I can in my power to get us over the Elite Eight hump and take us to Nashville and have the opportunity to play for the national championship," Epps said. "I know that's what all 13 of us and the four coaches want and everybody here in Lexington wants is for the girls to go ahead and win a national championship."

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