A Little Extra Motivation

A Little Extra Motivation

By DR. JOHN HUANG, Nolan Group Media

(LEXINGTON, KY.) – As a die-hard Kentucky fan, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that most of my basketball memories are negative ones. In fact, I daresay that the most indelible ones often involve the year-end heartbreaking defeats. Dating back to the Mideast Regional loss to Jacksonville in 1970, I can tell you exactly where I was every single year that the Wildcats’ season came to an abrupt end. The Laettner shot, Bogans’ sprained ankle, and the Wisconsin shot clock violations all coalescing into a nightmarish potpourri of anger, depression, and grief.

Despite reports to the contrary, it seems that Kentucky fans often do care more about wins and losses than the players themselves. Especially in this decade of one and done, our beloved on-court prodigies quickly move past disappointment. Not long after the final buzzer, they’re basking in the glow of massive NBA contracts and lavish lifestyles while the “average Joe fan” wallows in the pain and agony of yet another tournament loss. If only the players would stick around long enough to experience the heartache, to feel our pain—then surely they’d be extra motivated the next time around.

During the most recent media opportunity, I asked each of the four returning UK players about just that topic. To a man, they said the Auburn loss at the end of the season still grates at their collective core. It serves as a constant reminder and motivational force to propel them to greater heights. Whether that means another Final Four or a Championship trophy remains to be seen. But for a guy bent on spending the first weekend in April at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in Atlanta this upcoming Spring, their words were sweet melodies to my expectant ears and a much-needed salve for my wounded soul.

Sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley figures to garner significant minutes in the backcourt this year. He certainly hasn’t forgotten about that fateful day in Kansas City. “I probably think about it almost every day,” he confessed. “Just knowing that we were that close to getting to a Final Four. You watch it on TV, but to play in the Final Four would have been really cool. It kind of hurts that we didn’t get to do that.”

Backcourt mate Ashton Hagans agreed wholeheartedly. The Wildcats’ sophomore starting point guard appeared cool, confident, and composed—until he was asked about that season-ending defeat. “It’s actually been in the back of my head a lot,” he lamented. “It’s just one of those feelings that will never go away because you were so close. The bond that we created (last year), it was just different. Knowing that we can’t do it with the same group…it hurt. But that just adds fuel to the fire. So you just have to come in, knowing what you could have done last year—just bring it in and just leave it on the court this year.”

Sophomore forward EJ Montgomery was the last of the teammates to pull his name out of the upcoming NBA draft. Temporarily passing on the opportunity to fulfill his dream, he vividly remembers the tearful locker room after the overtime loss to Auburn, and he claims that it’s a definite factor in upping his game this year. “No one wants to go through that, (the disappointment) of times with your team,” he said. “You gotta put in work in the gym. We have some returnees that all felt that, so we’re just going to try our best to get farther.”

OK, who are we kidding? I’m not saying any of these guys returned to school solely to win another national title. Those team-oriented goals and dreams left town with the likes of Kenny Walker and Roger Harden. Granted, times were different back when they played—a bygone era when love for your school trumped even one’s individual career goals. In this day and age of players focused solely on taking their games to the next level, is it even possible that they’d be motivated by defeat?  

Perhaps junior center Nick Richards said it best. After all, he’s suffered through two crushing season-ending upsets—to Kansas State as a freshman and to Auburn as a sophomore. “Those two losses are actually just motivation for me and my game,” he readily admitted. “Just trying to motivate this team. Just to make it to that championship, just to hold up that trophy, just to be on that stage is real motivation for me. I always think about those losses every single day.”

Me too, Nick. With the exception of four years in my lifetime, every Wildcat season has ended in abject disaster. It’s virtually impossible for fans like me to forgive and forget. We’re all hoping that Championship #9 is just around the corner—and that for the returning UK players, a little extra motivation is all that’s needed to get them over the hump.

“That’s the goal for every team—to make it to the Final Four and just win the National Championship,” Nick added.

For all of BBN, we couldn’t agree more.

Dr. John Huang covers University of Kentucky sports for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.  

Maci, Maci, Maci!

Maci, Maci, Maci!

Kentucky’s 72-57 loss to NC State in the 2019 NCAA Tournament Round of 32 signaled the end of another hard-fought basketball campaign. It’s always sad to see the season end. It’s even sadder to see the conclusion of another great college basketball career. Maci Morris will go down in Kentucky Women’s Basketball history as one of the most popular players to ever wear the Blue and White. It was an honor and a privilege to cover her exploits on the court these past few years.

Back in 2017, I wrote my very first feature article for Nolan Group Media. I couldn’t have asked for a better subject. Thanks Maci, for helping me out. And thanks also, from a grateful Big Blue Nation, for all the wonderful memories. Can’t wait to share in all your future successes.

Maci, Maci, Maci! —By Dr. John Huang

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Like a vigilant sentinel standing guard over the county line, the roadside highway sign off US 25E in Southeastern Kentucky proudly proclaims “Bell County, Home of Macy Morris, Miss KY Basketball 2015.” Although her name is misspelled, the sentiment remains unmistakable. As a key player for the University of Kentucky Wildcats Women’s Basketball team, the hometown hoops heroine from Pineville carries with her the hopes, the dreams, and the pride of her tight-knit mountain community.

I caught up with Maci shortly after Kentucky’s big road win at Auburn, where she knocked down some huge shots, scored a big game clinching basket, and tallied a career high 9 rebounds. Although we had never met formally, she was gracious enough to speak openly with me about a variety of extended topics. As you might expect, I didn’t encounter the iciness of a cold-blooded 3-point assassin, but rather was overwhelmed by the genuine warmth and affection of someone speaking so fondly from the heart about her family and friends back home.

“Shout outs to all my friends and family and supporters,” Maci said.  “I appreciate you guys more than you know and just thank you for always lifting me up and supporting me throughout my high school and college career. I love everybody back home. Everyone always treated me great.”

The 6’0 All-State guard from Bell County achieved her rise to stardom through both family genetics and a strong individual work ethic. Maci (who was named after UK great Kyle Macy and wears his uniform number 4) explained to me, “I was basically born into basketball. When I was born, my dad was coaching at Hazard, so I was always around the gym. My parents were both athletes. My dad played basketball and baseball and went to college for that. And my mom went to play college basketball as well.” Not only were both her parents star athletes, many other members of her extended family were also heavily into sports. “Both my uncles went to college for baseball and my Papaw and his brother went to college as well for baseball,” Maci added. “My dad’s sister, she went to college for basketball. So, it’s just like a real big athletic family. I have a lot of cousins who went to college for sports as well.”

With athletic ability running rampant in the family, Maci naturally gravitated to sports. As a little girl, she loved being a baseball pitcher. But boys usually played baseball while girls played softball and the thought of pitching underhanded just didn’t appeal to her. Although she ran a little bit of track in high school, everyone knew that basketball would eventually be her calling.

Maci’s high school career was chocked full of accomplishments and accolades. I know—I looked it up and she was great, averaging over 25 points and nearly 8 rebounds while leading her team to a 29-3 record her senior season. “I say all the time how I miss how fun high school ball was,” Maci reminisced. “My best friends were on my basketball team so getting to play with them all the time was great. My senior year was a blast because we went to State and that was the first time a team from Bell County had ever gone to State and won their region. I just really enjoyed it and tried to give it my all my senior year because I knew that coming to college, basketball was going to be a whole different story.”

The awards banquet for her Miss Kentucky Basketball honor provided for a few awkward moments when Coach Joe B. Hall kept referring to her as “Marci” during the presentation ceremonies. When I asked her why in the world she didn’t correct him, Maci gave the perfect answer. “Joe B. Hall is a legend,” she said. “So, I just let him keep going. Everybody thought it was so funny. I had a lot of friends who were there and to this day, they joke around with me and even now call me ‘Marci.’ We all get a big kick out of it.”

When it came time to choose a college, the decision came rather naturally. “When you’re born in Kentucky, you’re basically either a Kentucky or Louisville fan and I was brought up to be a Kentucky fan,” Maci proclaimed proudly. “Coach Mitchell was the main coach who recruited me, so I got to build a relationship with him. I always came up to games because I lived just two and a half hours from here.”

As expected, Maci contributed immediately to the Wildcats in her first college season.  As a freshman, she started all 33 games, averaged eight-and-a-half points per game, and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team. Although success appeared to come easily, there was a lot of hard work behind all the spot-up jumpers and three-point swishes. “I worked hard last year,” she pointed out to me. “My dad told me, ’this is going to be a whole different ballgame. You’re going to get out there and you’re going to have to work as hard as you can. You’ve got to be the hardest worker on the floor.’ I just tried to do that. One of my coaches from last year, he really helped out with that. He would talk to me and just push me to be my best every day.” That hard work paid off as Maci and her teammates experienced the thrill of home crowds as the Wildcats advanced through the Lexington Regional in post-season play.

The speed and pace of the college game is usually the biggest difference for players making the adjustment from high school, and things were no different that first year—even for a talented Miss Kentucky Basketball. “At first it was just like a big difference because I was just so weakly prepared to play on the defensive end” Maci admitted. “The coaches have done a terrific job preparing me and helping me build on my footwork and my speed. Also, our strength and conditioning coach worked with me and the team a lot this summer on our quickness. That’s helped me a lot and having a year underneath me gave me more confidence just being able to know what to expect.”

The diminutive sophomore, who her teammates playfully call “string bean,” also knows that she needs to get stronger. “I have to be more aggressive when I go down low because I’m not as strong as Evelyn (Akhator) and (Makayla) Epps so I have to be more physical and aggressive and play maybe a little bit dirtier,” she jokingly added.

Just like with other normal students, simple adjustments to everyday college life could easily become daunting endeavors for Maci. For student-athletes especially, these adjustments become even more magnified. Class schedules and practice demands frequently turn ordinary daily tasks into creative challenges. “A big thing for me when I was back home was that my mom or my dad always fixed food for me,” Maci expounded. “So here it’s a little different because I live in a dorm. We have a kitchen in our dorm but it’s hard to go out and buy food because of our schedule and to be able to store it in our room. We don’t have a large refrigerator. We just have a mini-fridge. And just eating habits were different and just being able to handle our own time (was difficult).”

Maci claims that becoming better organized is one of her immediate goals. With all her travel to away games, practice schedules, and tutoring sessions, she works hard to better manage her time. She playfully recounted the story of the time she walked all the way across campus to get in her car only to realize that she had forgotten the keys. “Yeah, my cousin came up and we were going to the football game and I have to park my car at like a side street where one of my friends live. So we had to walk all the way and I got over there, and I couldn’t find my keys and I was like ‘Oh my gosh.’ He had already forgotten his jacket, so we had to like go up to our room and like walk all the way back to the car. And once I forgot my keys, we had to walk all the way back to the dorm again, get the keys and get back to my car.”

The summer after her freshman year was fraught with potential turmoil as Maci witnessed half of her former teammates transfer to other schools for a variety of different reasons. Maci and her remaining teammates persevered, strengthening their resolve and commitment to each other in the process. As her sophomore season began, the team got off to an inconsistent start and struggled to develop the confidence and unit cohesion needed for success. After a heartbreaking loss to Arizona State in Rupp Arena, in which she scored a career-high 29 points, Maci appeared on the post-game interview podium with the biggest frowny face you could imagine. When I asked Maci why she was so inconsolable after such a great individual performance, she responded as the consummate team player she is. “I could care less about how much I score,” she said. “As long as my team wins, that’s really all that matters. People were bringing up that I had a great game, but it obviously wasn’t good enough because we lost. Like I said, I’d rather win than score.”

You can obviously tell that being a team player comes naturally to Maci. I’ve noticed how she always speaks so deferentially and respectfully to seniors Epps and Akhator. She and fellow sophomore guard Taylor Murray also have become great friends off the court. Those types of genuine player relationships can’t help but lead to improved team chemistry and future success.

Midway through the conference season, the team seems to have found its groove. When I asked Maci for her thoughts regarding the abrupt turnaround, she said, “I think our loss at Texas A&M just woke us up a little bit. We had to start having fun again. We kind of lost just enjoying the game. After the loss to Texas A&M, we had a talk before practice and we all got together and just told each other we had to play for each other. We have to go out there and give it everything we had and just have fun with it. So, in practice we just worked so hard and just went hard every rep and just put everything there out on the line and it carried over to the next game and then the next game after that, so it just really worked out for us.”

As our session wound down, I decided I’d broach a topic with Maci that other athletes don’t necessarily feel comfortable discussing. Not only was she comfortable discussing her faith, but she appeared more than willing to share her thoughts. “God just gives me this sense of peace,” she said pensively. “I’ve been working on my relationship with Him a lot—especially this year. My New Year’s resolution was to read my Bible every day and to spend time with Him. Already I can see a change within myself–how I treat others and how I look at my day with more positivity. Even when things aren’t going my way, I always look to Him. I trust in Him because I know He’s going to take care of it.” After a momentary pause, she added, “He just always gives me peace.”

If you check out her Twitter page @Maci4Mo, you’ll find Philippians 4:13 as part of the heading. “I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.” It’s amazing how someone so young and gifted in her craft could already have developed such a surprisingly mature and joyful spiritual attitude.

As she departed for her tutoring session, I gave Maci a chance to show off another one of her many off the court talents. During a previous post-game interview session, Maci had jokingly hinted to reporters that she was one of the better singers on the team. When I gave her a chance today to demonstrate her vocal prowess, she politely declined. “I’m good,” she said. And that was the end of that.

Instead, she did throw me a final bone by revealing something Big Blue Nation has been dying to know. What goes into the game time decision regarding her hair? How does she determine when to stick with the head band or when to break out those stylish braids? Well it turns out that just like in many other areas of her life, she’s wisely just following her mom’s sage advice. “My mom actually got on to me and that’s why I wore the braids the other day in our last game because she was like ‘you keep fooling with your hair. You need to braid it, so you quit fooling with it in the games. You don’t realize it but that’s all you do is play with your hair.’ So I said ‘OK, I’ll braid it.’”

As I walked back to my car with keys in hand, I realized that there’s not much about Maci Morris for anyone to dislike. She’s a small-town Kentucky athlete pursuing her love of sport at the state university. She’s surrounded by a gaggle of loyal friends and unconditionally supported by her loving family. She’s an exemplary teammate on a team made up of exemplary teammates. Her faith is an example and inspiration to many. She has a fun sense of humor, (a purported) nice singing voice, and great hair. She’s also pretty darn good at basketball. And most importantly, she has nice teeth and a beautiful smile. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist who covers UK sports for Nolan Group Media. He can be reached at www.huangswhinings.com. Follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.