Needing a series sweep over the Tigers to guarantee an above-.500 record for the regular season, senior pitcher Chanda Bell toed the rubber for her final appearance in the circle at the UK Softball Complex. Opposing one of the best pitchers in the country in LSU's Rachel Fico, Bell would not be upstaged.
Bell recorded the fifth no-hitter of her career Sunday in front of a full house to clinch the fifth overall seed in the upcoming SEC Tournament with a 1-0 victory. For Bell, she couldn't imagine a better way to cap off an emotional Senior Day.
"This was the best weekend ever," Bell said. "And I think it was better that it was Senior Weekend and we needed these wins... and it just couldn't have been any better."
Not only was the no-hitter impressive, but it was much needed when facing one of the nation's stingiest pitchers.
Kentucky had a great opportunity to get to Fico in its first at-bat. Senior third baseman Brittany Cervantes, as she has all weekend, got things going with a leadoff double to left field. Fico would then load the bases with still no outs in the inning. But as a true ace is wont to do, she battled back to get two strikeouts and a fly out to lead the runners stranded.
Though they knew they missed a great opportunity, Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson said her team remained optimistic.
"We weren't deflated," said Lawson. "When you have a season full of ups and downs, you get so used to when things don't go your way, you're pretty resilient. So we're a pretty resilient group, and it was definitely not ideal to go down after having bases loaded with nobody out, but we've been in those situations so many times that it wasn't as nerve-wracking as I think it was for other people who haven't been in that situation 15 times."
And the Cats continued to battle at the plate despite the lack of success they were experiencing against Fico. They worked the LSU starter into deep counts all day long, including a 16-pitch at bat by senior Rachel Riley in the first inning.
Both pitchers were cruising after the first inning until the fifth inning. Bell allowed her first base runner of the game when she hit LSU's Allison Falcon. Immediately Tiger's head coach Beth Torina lifted Falcon for pinch runner Alex Boulet. Boulet tried to swipe second base on the very next pitch, but Griffin Joiner gunned her down to end LSU's mini-threat.
Kentucky finally began to put things together in the sixth inning when Joiner coaxed a one-out walk. Joiner advanced to second on a Ginny Carroll come-backer that served as a sacrifice bunt. Alice O'Brien strolled to the plate with an opportunity to drive in the game's first run. O'Brien made contact and placed a perfectly hit ball slowly up the middle. An aggressive call by third base coach Kristine Himes sent Joiner, who was running on the pitch, home as Falcon dove up the middle to stop the ball. Falcon's valiant effort came up short as the throw was off line as Joiner slid home safely for the go-ahead run.
O'Brien had a notion before her game-winning hit that something good was on the way.
"Griffin was going on the pitch," said Lawson. "And O'Brien in the at-bats before was like, 'I'm seeing the ball, I just got to stay behind it and I got to put it up the middle.' So, she had actually planned that two innings before her last at-bat. So for her to be able to do that is really hats off to her focus and her determination to make it happen."
The rest was up to Bell, who would only need that lone run. And did she ever deliver.
Bell recorded a perfect seventh inning, including blowing away the last batter of a game for her sixth strikeout on the day. It was a familiar, yet still incredible feeling for the senior righthander who has accomplished so much in her four season's at Kentucky.
"I thought I jinxed myself a few times because I knew I had a no-hitter going on," said Bell. "So with that in my head, I knew right away. And I knew (Ashley) Langoni was one of their best hitters, so just being able to get her out, especially on a strikeout, was just a great feeling."
Bell defied the proverbial no-hitter jinx Sunday and propelled the Wildcats to the fifth seed in the SEC Tournament. While Kentucky will head to Tuscaloosa, Ala. next week to try to improve their NCAA Tournament resume, Sunday was all about this impressive senior class. Bell and Cervantes, along with fellow seniors Rachel Riley, Erika Silence, Macy Allen and Ashleigh Gustafson were Lawson's first recruiting class at UK. There's no question that this special group of players have left their mark on a rising Kentucky softball program as the winningest class in school history.
"It's great because what people don't realize is Riley and Cervantes were my first two recruits at Kentucky," said Lawson after the game. "So even though I've been here for five years, that's pretty special. And this whole group, we've been through the whole thing for four years together. They're a special group and I can't say enough about how incredible they are as people, in the classroom, in the community, and on the ball field.
"We're going to miss them, but they've given us a lot to build on, and I'm really excited for the future they've built for us."