- Associated Press - Friday, March 17, 2017

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Just when it seemed Kentucky’s veterans would have to carry the load against Belmont, Maci Morris stepped up to provide one of her strengths.

The Wildcats sophomore guard wasn’t perfect from the foul line, but she was good enough to earn the Wildcats a tough victory.

Morris made seven of eight free throws in the final 37 seconds, including two with 3.2 seconds remaining, to help fourth-seeded Kentucky edge No. 13 Belmont 73-70 on Friday in a first-round game of the NCAA Tournament.

“Free-throw wise, I didn’t want to miss,” said Morris, a perimeter threat who also leads Kentucky at the line (88 percent). “In the past I have missed some big free throws. I didn’t want to miss. (Makayla) Epps told me after I missed one that I would make the next two.”

Wildcats seniors Epps and Evelyn Akhator did their parts before that to get Kentucky (22-10) ahead with 52 combined points that were needed to hold off the determined Bruins. Belmont (27-6) got within 69-68 on two Sally McCabe free throws with 13 seconds remaining.

Morris had already made three of four at the line by then and sealed the victory with four more in the final seconds for 15 points and an edge that proved critical against Belmont’s last chance to tie.

Darby Maggard was defended well and shot an off-balance 3 that missed as the horn sounded to end Belmont’s school-record 21-game winning streak.

“That was fun,” said coach Cameron Newbauer, whose team shot 46 percent. “Unfortunately, not the outcome we wanted but that was incredible to watch what our team just did. Kentucky is a great team.”

Epps scored 30 with a career-high five 3-pointers while Akhator added 22. Epps lost a chance to reach a season high in scoring by missing two free throws with 53 seconds left, but Morris came through to help the Wildcats win their 10th straight tournament opener dating back to 1999.

“She didn’t seem too concerned and that is a good demeanor to have,” coach Matthew Mitchell said of Morris. “On those last ones, my heart was racing. I still get amazed to watch young people go up there and knock down free throws. … She is just a cool customer.”

THE BIG PICTURE

Belmont: Unfazed by double-digit deficits in hostile territory, the Bruins stuck with the plan and made things close throughout and create final opportunities to earn their first NCAA Tournament win. Their zone defense helped win the rebounding battle 33-28 and contain Epps in the second quarter en route to a 36-35 halftime lead. Belmont also delivered as expected from long range with nine 3-pointers, with many coming in clutch moments. But Maggard had to work through two Wildcats on her final shot and finished with 15 points. Kylee Smith had 23 and Sally McCabe 16 for the Bruins.

Kentucky: Epps’ shooting got the Wildcats started in both halves, the most important contribution being consecutives 3s out of the break in a 16-3 run that changed the momentum. All of her points came in handy, though not as much as Morris’ points from the line as the 88-percent shooter delivered. Akhator also came up big on the glass with 10 rebounds for her 17th double-double this season.

IN A ZONE

Epps entered the game leading Kentucky in scoring with 17.2 points per contest but doesn’t exactly focus on perimeter shooting unless needed. That was hard to tell as she made her first five from behind the arc before missing her final three, though not by much.

“You never know what you will be doing in a game,” said Epps who made 11 of 18 from the field overall. “The shots were open. Even the ones I missed felt good. If you don’t respect me, I am going to shoot it.”

UP NEXT

Kentucky faces Ohio State in the second round on Sunday.

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More AP college basketball at https://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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