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UK softball advances to SEC championship

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Tied 2-2 in the top of the ninth inning, University of Kentucky senior outfielder Ginny Carroll ended a stretch of 16 straight UK batters retired with a five-pitch walk, starting a two-run, two-out rally that was capped by a two-RBI double from sophomore centerfielder Sylver Samuel to lift No. 15 Kentucky to a 4-3 win over No. 25 LSU on Friday at the Carolina Softball Stadium in Columbia, S.C.

The win moves Kentucky (44-14) to the Southeastern Conference Championship game for the first time in program history. The Wildcats will face No. 5 seed Georgia on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2. Georgia advanced to the championship game after a 5-3 win over No. 1 seeded Alabama on Friday night. Kentucky’s appearance in the title game ties the lowest seeded team to play in the championship of the event. South Carolina won the tournament title as a seven seed in 2000.

The Wildcat offense posted only two hits in the game, but both came in clutch situations. Kentucky scored first for the third consecutive game, getting two runs in the third inning on a hit, LSU error and three free passes. The hit was a two-out, RBI single by senior infielder Krystal Smith to put UK up 2-0. Kentucky’s first run in the inning scored on a bases-loaded walk to junior catcher Griffin Joiner.

Samuel delivered the second – and biggest – hit of the game for Kentucky in the ninth inning. With LSU freshman pitcher Baylee Corbello on a stretch of retiring 16 straight UK batters, including the first two she faced in the ninth inning, Carroll worked a walk before sophomore Christian Stokes reached base for the second time in the game after being hit by a pitch. That set the stage for Samuel, who slapped a 1-1 pitch into the gap in left-centerfield to score two runners and give UK a 4-2 lead.

For the third consecutive game, Kentucky turned to sophomore ace Kelsey Nunley in the circle, who again delivered a brilliant performance for the Wildcats. Nunley allowed three runs in the game – all earned – on six hits with six strikeouts. The native of Soddy Daisy, Tenn., who has thrown 25 innings in three days, moved to 24-7 this season in the circle and is 51-18 in her two seasons at Kentucky, ranking third in career wins in program history. Nunley has six postseason wins in her young career, marking the most by any UK pitcher in school history. Rachel Riley (2009-12) had five postseason wins in her career.

Nunley limited LSU to one run heading to the bottom of the seventh inning when the Tigers rallied to tie the game and force extra innings. The inning started with Nunley hitting senior infielder Allison Falcon with a pitch with the speedster Simone Heyward coming on to pinch run. Senior third baseman Tammy Wray followed the HBP with a perfect sacrifice bunt with Heyward taking advantage of no UK defender covering third base to move all the way to third. Outfielder Bailey Landry followed with a slap single into leftfield to score the tying run.

The UK sophomore did not let the lead slip away again, throwing a scoreless eighth inning before a solo home run by Wray in the ninth was wrapped around a pair of groundouts and a strikeout to seal the Kentucky victory.

Corbello was impressive in the circle for LSU, throwing nine strong innings, allowing four runs – two earned – on two hits with eight strikeouts. She received the loss in the game, moving to 17-8 on the season. Offensively, Landry was 2-for-4 for the Tigers with an RBI, while centerfield A.J. Andrews had a triple and a run scored.

The win continues UK’s program-best record after breaking the school record for wins Wednesday. UK has 44 wins this season, three better than the previous school record of 41 set last season. The Wildcats have consecutive 40-win seasons for the first time in program history. The victory over the highly ranked Tigers was the 14th this season for UK over a team ranked or receiving votes at the time UK played team. Friday’s win marked the 51st for seventh-year head coach Rachel Lawson over a ranked foe.

Kentucky earned the No. 7 seed in the tournament with a 13-11 conference record, marking its fourth straight winning season in league action. Prior to seventh-year head coach Rachel Lawson taking over the program, UK had only posted a winning SEC record one time. The appearance in the four-day event is the sixth-consecutive for Kentucky and it’s eighth all-time.

The Wildcats started this tournament run with a 4-3 walk-off win over 10th seeded Mississippi State on Wednesday in nine innings. UK took down No. 2 seed and top-10 ranked Tennessee on Thursday in the quarterfinal, clinching the Wildcats first appearance in the SEC Tournament semifinals in the event’s current format. UK’s three wins in this year’s tournament take UK’s all-time record in the event to 4-9.

UK and UGA met in the regular-season finale for both teams last weekend in Athens, Ga., with the Bulldogs sweeping the three-game series. Georgia leads the all-time series against Kentucky 48-12. The Bulldogs have won four straight games against the Wildcats. Saturday will mark the third all-time meeting between the two teams in the SEC Tournament with both teams claiming wins in the event against each other. UK defeated Georgia in the opening round in 2009 in Knoxville, Tenn., before falling in the opening round in 2012 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., 6-4.

The event, which is considered one of the most prestigious softball tournaments in the nation, started with two first-round games Wednesday, followed by four quarterfinal games Thursday and two semifinal games on Friday. The championship game will be played Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2. It will mark the 10th time this season Kentucky has played on national or regional television.


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