No. 10 Kentucky women challenged to move on despite injuries

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky’s depth under coach Matthew Mitchell has allowed the Wildcats offset injuries to key players over the years.

The 10th-ranked Wildcats now must tap into their bench to overcome Janee Thompson’s season-ending leg injury.

Kentucky’s starting point guard broke a bone in her left leg during a scramble for a loose ball in Sunday’s loss at No. 1 South Carolina. The Wildcats (14-3, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) have played the past six games without senior guard Bria Goss because of a broken left thumb.

Mitchell had some good news Wednesday, saying that Goss could return for Thursday’s game against Florida (9-8, 1-3). In the meantime, versatile sophomore Makayla Epps will move to the point position, while senior Jennifer O’Neill and sophomore Linnae Harper will attempt to fill the void left by Thompson’s injury.

”This has been a tough run for us,” said Mitchell, who wore a blue T-shirt with white letters that said ”Our B3st” featuring Thompson’s number in place of the E. ”But you don’t hang your head now because all it reminds me of is how incredibly fortunate we’ve been over the years, when an injury might have meant the difference between being an NCAA tournament team or not or having a winning record.

”We have not had this kind of challenge before.”

Thompson had surgery on Monday and Mitchell said she could return in time for summer workouts. For now, Kentucky must try to overcome the playmaking, scoring (10.1 average) and defensive voids her absence has created.

That’s why turning to Epps was an easy choice for Mitchell.

Second to O’Neill in scoring at 12.8 points per game, Epps’ 50 assists are only three behind leader Thompson and she’s tied for fourth with 23 steals. She played the point in high school before taking on several positions at Kentucky.

”Janee plays 36-plus minutes every game and I just have to prepare myself for that,” Epps said. ”I play above 30, but I’m thinking about putting in some extra cardio work, because I’m going to need it. … I want to be able to do everything she did for the team and want to be like the type of leader she was for this team.”

Mitchell said Goss could have played at South Carolina but he decided more rest was needed to heal the thumb. Though the coach didn’t say how much she’d play against the Gators, he added that she has shot and defended well in practice this week.

”That’s a blessing that we can get her back,” Mitchell said.

Kentucky will certainly need everybody to do more against Florida, which swept last year’s regular-season meetings and trails 26-24 in the series. With the last eight meetings decided by 10 points or fewer, the Wildcats must avoid turnovers against the Gators, especially without Thompson.

”The margin for error is reduced here,” Mitchell said. ”It does need to heighten everyone’s sense of awareness of their responsibility to the team.”