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Softball keeps focus on today to pick up crucial win over LSU

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Senior Brittany Cervantes and Chanda Bell helped lead UK to a 2-1 victory over LSU on Saturday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Senior Brittany Cervantes and Chanda Bell helped lead UK to a 2-1 victory over LSU on Saturday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Up until Friday, the Kentucky softball team had never even defeated Louisiana State University at the UK Softball Complex. Until Saturday, they had never taken a series from LSU. After Saturday's 2-1 victory, Kentucky has accomplished both.

And it could not have come at a better time.

Kentucky (28-27, 14-13 SEC) came into this weekend needing a series win to ensure a record of at least .500, the minimum for eligibility for the NCAA Tournament. They have now taken the first two, which will afford them the luxury of needing just one win in the SEC tournament to maintain the .500 status. 

The focus coming into Saturday's match up was just that: Saturday. 

"It's not a cliche, we really are a one pitch at a time mentality," said Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson. "Because I think when you get too inundated with the big picture, you just don't perform well, so we're just, believe it or not, our team's just having fun and enjoying the moment and trying to make it last as long as we can."

And they have performed well. Friday night, they faced the NCAA earned run average leader in Rachele Fico who entered the game with a 0.90 ERA. They scored four runs (three earned) and came up with a much needed 4-3 victory in eight innings behind the pitching performance of senior Chanda Bell.

Today, Lawson handed the ball to another senior in Rachel Riley. With her turn in the circle, Riley knew the importance of Saturday's game.

"I think we needed it," said Riley. "We've been working all year and we're trying to make it to postseason, so any win we can get is good."

But the significance never wavered Riley's approach. In order to be at her best, she would have to treat it just like any other outing. 

"It was the same as any other day," said Riley. "I was just going to go out there and throw my game, and hopefully it would be O.K."

She was better than O.K. Riley gave up six hits and a walk, but limited the Tigers to just one run in 6.1 innings. It could have been worse, though.

Kentucky had some shaky play in the field early, but buckled down as the game progressed as the Wildcat defense turned in a few gems. Second baseman Emily Jolly started a brilliant 4-6-3 double play just pitches after getting banged up on a pick-off attempt at first base. Late in the seventh inning, Kara Dill saved a run when Simone Heyward stole third base. Griffin Joiner's throw to the base seemed doomed for left field before Dill snagged it out of the air to hold the runners. 

"It was huge," said Lawson of the stellar UK defense. "Ginny Carroll came in, made a nice catch. Jolly is so tough, she came in, she had a tough play. But Kara Dill, as far as I'm concerned is our defensive MVP. She made so many great stops today. And then that stop today in the seventh inning pretty much saved the day for us."

Not only did Carroll come in and make some nice defensive plays, but it was her bat that did the most talking. Carroll started the day as the designated player but moved into the left field in the middle of the game. After preserving the 1-1 tie in the field, she instantly gave Riley a 2-1 lead with a solo home run in the fifth, the second of the day surrendered by LSU pitcher Brittany Mack. 

"Mack is such an outstanding pitcher," said Lawson. "You're not able to string many hits together, so even though we didn't have a lot of hits, the ones we did have went pretty far. So, anytime you play somebody like her, that's awesome."

The first home run allowed came off the bat of Brittany Cervantes, her 12th of the year, which gave Kentucky the early 1-0 lead to leadoff the bottom of the first inning. It was the second straight at-bat that Cervantes had gone deep, going back to her game-tying home run Friday night.

Riley went back out to the circle to try and seal the deal in the top of the seventh. But she could only manage one out while allowing two runners to reach base. With Bell already loose, Lawson called on her ace for the final two outs. Bell recorded a pop out and a groundout to close the game for her third save of the year.

It was a huge performance from the two senior pitchers.

"(Riley) was incredible," said Lawson. "To be able to keep them to so few hits was tremendous. And then for Chanda to come in to shut down the top of the order the way she did was also key for us."

The 2-1 win Saturday makes for a tremendous opportunity for Kentucky. Win Sunday, and UK greatly improves their chances of making the NCAA Tournament. For that to happen, these seniors, as they've done all weekend, will have to come through at the UK Softball Complex one last time. It would be quite a way to go out.

"This is a huge weekend for us," said Lawson. "First, it's senior weekend this weekend. So anytime your seniors can perform like ours have this weekend, it's huge. But more importantly we have a good RPI. And really, for us to have a good shot at postseason we need to be above .500. So every win right now is crucial."

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