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SEC Tournament loss not the end of the road for these Cats

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Corey Littrell allowed just two runs over six innings in UK's 2-1 loss to Mississippi State on Saturday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Corey Littrell allowed just two runs over six innings in UK's 2-1 loss to Mississippi State on Saturday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
HOOVER, Ala. - Gary Henderson stepped the podium following Kentucky's 2-1 loss to Mississippi State overcome with emotion. The Wildcats had seen their run in the SEC Tournament end in the semifinals, but it wasn't the loss itself that was affecting Henderson.

Of course there was disappointment that his team wouldn't be able to improve even further on the best conference tournament finish of the modern era, but Henderson thinking about the fact that he won't be coaching his team on Sunday more than anything. It was really pride in the group of players he has gotten to coach every day that had him struggling to find his words.

"Extremely disappointed that we're not playing tomorrow," Henderson said. "I'm really proud of our guys. They were tough. They showed up. Clearly it was a rough day for us offensively, but it was just that type of game."

UK had stormed to within a victory of the finals on the strength of great pitching, solid defense and timely hitting, but on Saturday, the Cats were missing the final variable in that equation. Kentucky actually outhit Mississippi State 9-8 on the afternoon and had at least one man reach base in all nine innings, but left nine runners on, including six in scoring position. UK's only tally came on a solo home run by J.T. Riddle, one of his three hits on the game.

Even with all those struggles to cash in opportunities, Henderson couldn't fault his team's approach against a Bulldog staff that has dazzled all season.

"I didn't think we threw away a lot of at-bats...I thought our concentration was outstanding," Henderson said. "We clearly hit some balls that were capable and hard enough to fall in. We hit a lot of balls early on and in the middle of the game that were not hard enough to fall in. It's just the way it goes."

"We tried our best, but we couldn't get that one to fall for us," said third baseman Thomas McCarthy, who had two hits in four at-bats. "There was great pitching on both ends. Our pitchers kept us in the whole game. Unfortunately we couldn't scratch one across."

The victim of a lack of run support, starter Corey Littrell (8-2) lost for the second Saturday in a row at the hands of the Bulldogs. This time though, Littrell couldn't have done much more than he did. He allowed a run in the second and third innings, but no more over six innings of yet another quality start. He allowed six hits and struck out six batters.

"It certainly wasn't his cleanest, most efficient outing, but you look at, it's again one of the better teams in the country," Henderson said. "He goes six, he gives up two earned and they square up about two balls. It's hard for me to really fault him."

After Littrell's exit, Taylor Rogers and Trevor Gott combined to throw three shutout inning to continue a string of incredible pitching efforts during the SEC Tournament. Over 27 innings, UK pitchers combined for a 1.00 ERA, allowing just 17 hits, all of which were singles.

Behind those pitchers, UK capitalized on the SEC Tournament's new format to earn a pair of off days before Saturday, but the new format also ended up spelling an end to the Cats' chances. In spite of the loss being their first of the week, the Wildcats were eliminated due to the new single-elimination semifinal. Even so, Henderson had no bones to pick.

"I'm fine with the format," Henderson said. "It's not going to be perfect. You bring 10 teams, it's not going to be perfect. I've got no complaints...We loved it. We'd love to come back and we're going to do everything we can to get back here."

His thoughts would perhaps be different if the Cats weren't a lock to be selected for next week's NCAA Tournament. In fact, the two wins in Hoover, Ala., likely makes UK's case for the right to host a regional too strong to be denied.

"I would certainly think that the four seed in the SEC that's won 43 games, 20 of them against SEC competition, deserves a spot," Henderson said. "I'm not in the lobbying business, but it would seem to me that that would be a fair assumption."

As it turns out, Henderson will get to coach his team for at least two more games this season, and the Wildcats will be playing with some momentum on their side.

"We had a four-game losing streak coming into (the SEC Tournament) and we played really well over the course of this," Henderson said. "We were pretty good defensively. We pitched well."

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