Makayla Epps scored 30 points and Evelyn Akhator added 22 points and 10 rebounds as fourth-seeded Kentucky held off a determined Belmont squad 73-70 on Friday afternoon in the first round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Memorial Coliseum.
Kentucky trailed 36-35 at halftime, but the Wildcats opened the second half with a 13-0 run, which gave them a lead they would never relinquish.
Friday’s game was the sixth time this season that both Epps and Akhator scored at least 20 points in the same game. For Epps, it was the third time this season, and the sixth time in her career, that she has scored 30 points or more.
For Akhator, it was her 30th career double-double, and her 17th this season. She also scored at least 20 points for the 11th time this season and the 12th time in her career.
Maci Morris was the other Wildcat in double figures, scoring 15 points, including seven-of-eight free throws down the stretch to seal the game for Kentucky.
Kentucky (22-10) scored 19 points off of 13 Belmont turnovers, while allowing the Bruins to score just seven points off of the Wildcats’ seven turnovers. Kentucky shot 46.4 percent from the floor in the game, while Belmont hit 45.8 percent of its shots.
Kentucky jumped out to a 5-2 lead early, and would extend that lead to 11-4 behind Akhator, who scored eight straight for the Wildcats. Then, Epps scored eight straight as Kentucky increased its lead to 20-11. The Wildcats would lead 23-13 after one period after making nine of their 13 shots (69.2 percent) while holding Belmont to six-of-15 (40 percent) shooting from the floor.
In the second quarter, Kentucky missed its first five shots, allowing Belmont to get within six at 23-17. The Wildcats again extended the lead, this time leading 28-19 before Belmont made its run. Kylee Smith scored eight points in a 10-4 Bruins’ run to cut the lead to 32-29 with 3:27 left in the half.
With 31.3 seconds left in the half, Smith, who scored 16 points in the second quarter, hit a pair of free throws to give the Bruins their first lead of the game, 36-35. That would be the score at the break. Epps led Kentucky with 14 first half points, while Akhator had 12. Kentucky hit only five-of-16 (31.3 percent) from the floor in the second period, while Belmont connected on nine of its 15 shots (60 percent).
Kentucky started the second half with a bang, scoring the first 13 points of the period to turn a one-point deficit into a 48-36 lead. Epps had seven of the Wildcats’ 13 points in the run, and would score 12 points in the quarter. But again, Belmont refused to go away, ending the quarter on a 10-4 run to cut the lead to 55-49 with 10 minutes left. Kentucky hit a scorching 81.8 percent (9-11) of its shots in the period, while Belmont only connected on five of its 14 attempts (35.7 percent).
In the fourth quarter, Belmont chipped away at Kentucky’s lead, but could get no closer than three until there was less than a minute to play. With 31 seconds left, Belmont point guard Darby Maggard nailed a three from the top of the key to cut the Wildcats’ lead to two at 68-66. Morris then hit one of two from the line to give Kentucky a 69-66 lead. But with 13 seconds left, Sally McCabe hit a pair of free throws to get Belmont within one, 69-68.
Belmont put Morris back on the line with 10.5 seconds left, and the sophomore from Bell County (Ky.) High School hit two more from the charity stripe to give Kentucky a 71-68 lead. Smith hit a layup with 3.2 seconds left to bring Belmont within one again, 71-70. Smith then fouled Morris, who went to the line and hit two more free throws to increase the Wildcats’ advantage to 73-70, which would be the final score.
Kentucky will play in the second round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament on Sunday against either Ohio State or Western Kentucky. The time and TV network for that game have not yet been determined.
‑ GO CATS –
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