Rachael Metzger had the game-winning, pinch-hit single on Friday. (David Wegiel, UK Athletics)
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Come postseason, experience was supposed to serve Kentucky well.
With numerous returners from last year's Women's College World Series team back, the veterans were the ones who would lead the way.
To start with, that's exactly how things played out.
It was junior Sylver Samuel getting on in front of senior Griffin Joiner, who laced a double to plate the game's first run. It was junior Kelsey Nunley shutting out Northwestern through four innings. It was junior Nikki Sagermann slamming a two-run home run to tie the game in the fifth inning.
But that familiar script got flipped in the sixth.
"I think what it says is you never know what's going to happen in the postseason," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "The postseason is the time for--you gotta be risky, you gotta do whatever and it's really about who shines in the moment."
In the end, two underclassmen - sophomore Meagan Prince and true freshman Rachael Metzger - shined brightest and led UK to a 5-4 win to move into the winners' bracket of the South Bend Regional.
Prince came on in relief of Nunley, who gave up four runs and a 2-0 lead in the fifth inning. She tossed two scoreless innings and picked up the win in her first career NCAA Tournament appearance.
"I couldn't say enough about Meagan coming in and shutting the door," Lawson said. "Northwestern was doing a great job, they were hitting the ball hard and for her to calm down their bats a little bit was big for the win today."
Also big was Metzger, who came off the bench and delivered the game-winning pinch-hit single.
The hit - which came on the first pitch of the at-bat - made Metzger the exception on Friday afternoon. The first time through the order, her teammates didn't manage a single hit against Kristen Wood.
"We had never seen her before," Lawson said. "She's a really good pitcher and she had a little bit different spin than we were used to. It didn't break as much side to side as we thought that we had seen on video. So it had a lot more downward movement than we were anticipating and once we figured that out we were able to recognize the pitches sooner and be able to square up on them."
Metzger didn't need that time.
"I had been watching previous at-bats from other batters and had watched a lot of pitches - first-strike pitches - and kind of knew she was most likely going to throw something close in my house," Metzger said. "I just kind of saw the ball and hit the ball."
Metzger promptly laced a ball down the left-field line to score Maisie Steed and stake UK to a 5-4 lead. Prince took it from there.
Even though Northwestern loaded the bases thanks to an error, a walk and a fielder's choice, Prince closed the door with a game-ending strikeout.
"Pretty stressful situation, but I trusted my teammates behind me," Prince said. "I knew when it came down to it they would have my back. So long as I just didn't give up a bomb, they would have my back."
Thanks to Prince and her teammates having her back, UK will play the early game Saturday needing just one win to reach the Regional final. The Cats will face Ball State at noon.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - For seven straight seasons, the Kentucky softball team has reached the NCAA Tournament.
Leading one of just 21 programs nationally with such a streak, UK head coach Rachel Lawson knows it's a big deal.
"It means that we are able to build and that we are a program, not just a team," Lawson said.
The latest edition of the Wildcats will make its tournament debut on Friday, facing Northwestern in the South Bend Regional at 2 p.m. UK. The Cats are coming off their first Women's College World Series trip ever, but haven't performed quite up to expectations in entering the NCAA Tournament with a 29-24 record.
"We understand that we have fallen short for a lot of reasons and hopefully we have tightened up," Lawson said.
When Lawson says "tightened up," she's thinking execution, not the emotional state of her team. She learned long ago from a longtime UK administrator to avoid that kind of tightness at all costs.
"We are really fortunate because John Cropp - who our stadium is named after - used to tell me when I first got here that worrying is just praying for something bad to happen," Lawson said. "That is kind of our mindset all the time."
Instead of thinking about the fact that they have lost seven straight games - the last three in walk-off fashion to No. 8 national seed Tennessee - the Cats are trying to learn the lessons they can from the defeats and focus on what's next.
"Honestly we're just trying to take the positives out of it and kind of move on from the past and move forward and look at what's ahead," senior catcher Griffin Joiner said. "That's the next pitch and the next game that we play."
But practice came first.
UK fell in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Wednesday, leaving the Cats ample time to practice for the NCAA Tournament with nothing but themselves in mind.
"We have had about six great days of practice and we haven't had that since January," Lawson said. "I think the fact that we have been able to focus on those things and the individual techniques that are required so we end up coming through in the end. I think we are going to be OK."
"We just had more time to focus on the things that we need to focus on," Joiner said. "It's kind of (hard to do that) during the grind of the season. You play every day, so it's just been good to be able to slow down and focus a little bit."
Lawson expects that extra time to yield results come this weekend, when UK will look to get past Northwestern, host Notre Dame and Ball State and into a Super Regional.
"I like the intensity of the practice and the passion," Lawson said. "The other thing from a tactical standpoint was the defense was a lot better and a lot cleaner and we were making diving catches and attacking balls that we used to sit back on. The postseason is about pitching and defense and then hopefully you luck out and get those timely hits."
A season ago, UK had that recipe down pat in making that WCWS trip, riding the arm of Kelsey Nunley, a good defense behind her and a clutch offense to Oklahoma City. With numerous contributors back from that team, including Nunley and Joiner along with Christian Stokes, Nikki Sagermann and Sylver Samuel, the Cats will be calling on that experience come Friday.
"I think the team that has the most experience when you walk on the field, you are not as nervous, you know what to expect and know what pregame is about and media and all those things," Lawson said. "That certainly gives us an advantage."
An advantage, sure, but no guarantee.
The Cats might be part of something bigger than themselves when it comes to the UK program, but they're just a team when they step on the field.
"I think the other thing you understand is that when you are in the postseason: It doesn't matter what you did the previous season, you have to play well this weekend," Lawson said. "Having that mindset is what has been able to carry us and we have had that mindset for seven years now."
The Kentucky baseball team got the all-around effort it needed on Tuesday en route to a 5-1 win over Northern Kentucky.
It was the team win the Wildcats were looking for after a dropping the final two games of a weekend series vs. Georgia and before the final regular-season series of the year, at Missouri beginning on Thursday.
All but one starter had a hit, and the four-man pitching staff combined to allow one run and nine hits. The all-around effort saw just two Wildcats, Evan White and Storm Wilson, with more than one hit, and no pitcher took the hill for more than three innings.
As head coach Gary Henderson looked back at the win, it was the pitching that stood out.
"It was a really good team win tonight," Henderson said. "Starting with two innings from Andrew [Nelson] on the mound, then to be able to get three out of Brad [Schaenzer] and three out of Zach [Pop] and then one out of Bo [Wilson], in a different role for Bo. I was really pleased with all four of those guys."
Nelson got the start and worked two innings. The senior righthander allowed no runs on just two hits with three strikeouts. In the first inning, he walked two and NKU loaded the bases, but a lineout to left ended the threat with the bases full.
Schaenzer came in the start the third. The freshman allowed a two-out single in each inning, but nothing more. Schaenzer added four strikeouts and walked none.
Next in line was Pop, another freshman. He was nearly as good as Schaenzer, but a pair of doubles in the eighth plated the Norse's lone run.
With Kentucky's lead cut to 3-1, the offense scored two in the bottom of the eighth before Wilson closed it out in the ninth.
Offensively, the game was just as clean and well-rounded for Kentucky. Eleven hits distributed among nine players, and the five runs were scored and batted in by a combined seven Wildcats.
"We came up with a couple of key hits when it mattered," Henderson said. Greg [Fettes'] hit in the eighth was huge. It was certainly a lot better than the offensive showing on Sunday. We were able to get some guys some at-bats and get some hits and drive in some runs with guys on base. That was nice. Obviously that was a little bit of a battle for us on Sunday, but they did a nice job today."
Fettes, in his first at-bat of the game, launched a two-run home run in the eighth. The shot to left scored Wilson and came a half-inning after Northern Kentucky scored its only run.
The offense got a quick start to the game in the first, as Kyle Barrett singled to lead off the game. He scored on White's double, who scored on a JaVon Shelby groundout. Four batters into the game for the Wildcats and they held a 2-0 lead. UK's lead grew to 3-0 after White scored in the fifth.
It was a big win for Kentucky because of what's next. Wednesday's day off includes a trip to Missouri, where the Wildcats open a three-game set on Thursday. Then, the postseason begins at the SEC Tournament on Tuesday.
With its NCAA Tournament hopes still up in the air, Kentucky will need some wins this weekend against the Tigers. However, the Wildcats will have some momentum on their side as they take the field for the final time in the regular season.
"It's a lot better than not having the win," Henderson said of momentum going into the Missouri series. "Hopefully we'll go from this and we just have to play well. We're very capable of playing well on the road, and the team knows that. That'll be our job, that's our challenge, and we need to go to Columbia and play well."
With series wins in two of its last three three-game road SEC series, UK certainly knows how to play well on the road. That should only add to the momentum.
The Kentucky softball team is headed to Notre Dame.
Making their seventh straight NCAA Tournament appearance, the Wildcats were sent to the South Bend Regional during Sunday night's Selection Show. UK will open tournament play against Northwestern at 2 p.m. ET on Friday, with host and No. 16 seed Notre Dame taking on Ball State afterward.
Head coach Gary Henderson was forced to play Dorian Hairston.
The junior is swinging a hot bat, and there's no way he can't be in the lineup night in and night out.
Friday was Hairston's 11th consecutive start, and he celebrated it with a three-run home run in the third inning, the eventual game winner in UK's 6-2 victory over Georgia.
"That's a phrase that the kids are very familiar with, force me to play you," Henderson said about Hairston playing his way into the lineup. "Take it out of my hands, make it a no-brainer, you have to play."
Friday was the 19th time Hairston's name was listed on the lineup card in UK's last 21 games. Before that, he started just five times.
The home run was Hairston's fourth career long ball, all coming this season in conference play. Hairston has plated the game-winning run for the Wildcats in three of their last four wins, two of those coming against top-six teams.
Friday's blast cleared the fence in left-center came on a 2-1 pitch. A curveball from a righthanded pitcher was not a problem for Hairston tonight.
"That was huge," Hairston said. "That's been my big weakness. Since I've been here, it's always been 'we have to figure out a way to get you to hit the righthanded off-speed breaking pitch. I actually wasn't even looking for that pitch, I thought he was going to throw a fastball, it's a 2-1 count, I'm thinking he doesn't want to get to 3-1. He floats that thing over there and it hangs a little bit. I was able to keep that front shoulder in and turn it around, and now it's a 3-0 ballgame. That was huge, that was big for my confidence.
"He hung a curveball in my first at-bat, and he hung it again in the second, it was a 2-1 count and I took advantage of it."
So what has changed since mid-march for the Lexington native?
It began with a start in right field on March 22 vs. No. 20 Mississippi State, where he went 2-4 with two RBI. Three games later, he had two more starts under his belt. After another day off, the stretch of 19 starts in 21 days began.
"Confidence," Hairston said. "I feel a lot more confident at the plate, I feel like I'm starting to prove myself and show that I've earned some playing time. Through that, I feel a lot more comfortable at the plate and I'm finding some success with it."
In his last 19 games, Hairston has recorded at least one hit in all but five games. He has 12 RBI with seven extra-base knocks.
His confidence is up, but Hairston is also seeing the ball better and picking the right pitches to swing at.
"He's doing a better job of swinging at strikes, he's doing a better job of laying off balls out of the strikezone, same thing," Henderson said. "He's become much more proficient in clobbering soft stuff that's a mistake, which is what he got tonight. He's a good rightfielder, plays smart, he cares. Kids respect him, coaches respect him."
Swinging a hot bat, Hairston will see plenty more time in the lineup. After all, he has forced his way in.
Kelsey Nunley had nine strikeouts in UK's loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament on Wednesday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
BATON ROUGE, La. - It was an all too familiar feeling.
The Kentucky softball team had just lost in walk-off for the third time in five days to Tennessee, this time in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
That didn't make it any easier.
"This game, it's hard to swallow," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "A lot of the games that we've played lately are hard to swallow."
The loss came after the Wildcats had built leads of 2-0 and 3-1 on the Lady Volunteers. UK (29-24) seemed unlikely to relinquish the lead with Kelsey Nunley on the mound in the postseason, but Tennessee (40-13) charged back anyway for a 5-4 win on a two-run single off the wall in left field by Meghan Gregg.
As Nunley's pitch count climbed, the Lady Volunteers began to hit her harder. Nunley stranded runners in scoring position in two of the first three innings, but she was unable to escape trouble in the fourth and fifth, allowing three runs, and she was lifted for Erin Rethlake. Rethlake, a true freshman, looked unfazed in her first postseason appearance, but two walks and an error undid her and UK in the seventh inning.
"We've done some things really, really well," Lawson said. "We just need to figure out how to finish games. We need to figure how to close games and we need to clean up some things. We played most of the game well, but when you're playing at this level and you're playing a team of this caliber you can't make mistakes and you certainly can't make mistakes at the end of games because I think people take advantage of that."
UK, which now will await its NCAA Tournament fate and Sunday's 10 p.m. ET Selection Show, will have to cut out some of those mistakes to duplicate last year's run to the Women's College World Series.
"The postseason really comes down to pitching and defense and hopefully get your timely hits," Lawson said. "So I think it's important that we spend the next couple of days focusing defensively, really trying to tighten that up."
To go with that, Wildcat pitchers will go to work refining things.
"It'll be nice to have a few days in a row to work on things in the bullpen," Lawson said. "We really haven't had that luxury a lot lately. So to be able to have a few days to tighten up some of our pitches, make them break a little bit better, not keep them on the same plane, I think is going to be a big deal."
Though certainly and understandably disappointed after their seventh loss in a row, the Cats are ready to take advantage of a few days off and a chance to improve.
"It was a tough game, but we can just learn from it," said Maisie Steed, who had two hits against Tennessee." That's all we can do, is learn and move on and get back to Lexington and start working on things we need to work on and hopefully take it into the NCAA Tournament."
"We just gotta get back to Lexington and get back to work and hopefully just think of the postseason as a fresh start, try to turn things around," senior catcher Griffin Joiner said.
BATON ROUGE, La. - The Kentucky softball team, at long last, reached the top of the mountain a season ago.
The Wildcats had arrived, breaking through and advancing to the 2014 Women's College World Series after repeated Super Regional trips.
What they didn't realize was they'd have to go right back to base camp once the following season began.
"I think that after going to the World Series they just expected everything now would be easy," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "And it's not easy. I think getting to the postseason is the hardest part. I think that's a valuable lesson our program had to learn and I think they learned it. I think they learned it the hard way."
The hard way, for UK, means a 29-23 regular-season record and a ranking of No. 24/25, down from top 10 preseason. The Cats enter the Southeastern Conference Tournament as the No. 12 seed, set to open postseason play against fifth-seeded Tennessee at 7:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday on the SEC Network.
"I think what's important right now going into the postseason is that you're playing good softball," Lawson said. "I think it's important that we're moving around fast. I think it's important we're communicating. I think at this point, you've learned a lot during the season, it's just important that you trust yourself, you fly around, you play good softball and then what happens happens."
Though the last month has been a struggle (UK has lost six straight games and 14 of 18), the Cats do have some experience to call on when it comes to playing good softball. UK sat at 21-5 before a trip to Auburn, but it was the previous SEC series - the Cats' first - that Lawson says was when the challenge ahead became clear.
"We were playing really well and we were loose and then we had that big snowstorm and we weren't able to practice," Lawson said. "We hung out in a hotel for two days and then we flew out to A&M (on March 5) and we got in at 4 in the morning. I think that wasn't ideal. I think when we got to A&M I think they just expected, 'OK, SEC play is here and we're going to run through it.' "
Instead, UK went 5-19 in SEC play and dropped its final five conference series.
"I think it's important you have a short memory," Lawson said.
The Cats' collective memory will be immediately tested.
UK's final regular-season series was a sweep at the hands of the same Lady Volunteer team the Cats will face on Wednesday, dropping the final two games in walk-off fashion. To add to the intrigue, the two teams shared the same connecting flight from Atlanta to Baton Rouge, La.
It would be Lawson's preference to play one of the four teams that didn't appear on UK's regular-season schedule, but she isn't worried much about that.
"They're all incredible teams so it doesn't really matter which one you play," Lawson said. "It is strange playing a team so early, especially sharing a flight down with them, but I think at the end of the day both our goals are similar."
The goal, of course, is to advance deep into the conference and NCAA tournaments, just like last year when Kelsey Nunley - UK's likely Wednesday starter - carried the Cats to the World Series. As trying as the regular season was at points, 2015 will be remembered for what happens next.
"I think they've done it in the past and they were relieved when the regular season was over," Lawson said.
(2) Houston Rockets (Terrence Jones) vs. (3) Los Angeles Clippers
Game 1 of the first Western Conference Semifinals of Jones' career will tip off in Houston at 9:30 p.m. ET on TNT. Jones scored 15 points and grabbed five rebounds in the Rockets' 103-94 Game 5 victory over the Dallas Mavericks last Tuesday. The Clippers and Rockets split the regular season series, 2-2, with Houston claiming the latter two contests. Jones sat out both Rockets losses due to injury.
East (1) Atlanta Hawks vs. (5) Washington Wizards (John Wall), WSH 1-0
The Wizards continued their postseason undefeated streak with a 104-98 victory over the top-seeded Hawks on the road. Wall fought through a sprained left wrist to notch his fourth double-double in five playoff games, by way of 18 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds. Game 2 is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday. TNT will broadcast live from Atlanta.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (3) Chicago Bulls (Nazr Mohammed)
After sitting out the first six games of the Bulls' first round series with the Milwaukee Bucks, the 37-year-old Mohammed recorded two points, one block, and one rebound in Chicago's 120-66 Game 7 annihilation of Milwaukee. Game 1 with the Cavs will begin tonight in Cleveland at 7:00 p.m. on TNT.