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Offense awakens as Nunley tosses second straight complete game

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Kelsey Nunley allowed two runs - both unearned - on one hit in UK's 6-2 win over Virginia Tech on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kelsey Nunley allowed two runs - both unearned - on one hit in UK's 6-2 win over Virginia Tech on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kelsey Nunley is nervous every game she plays. She admitted as much after she pitched UK to victory in her first-career NCAA Tournament start on Friday.

Even so, she had little trouble dealing with the uneasiness against Marshall. Nunley tossed eight innings - allowing just one run - without once stepping into the circle with a lead.

After she pitched into extra innings with her back against the wall the night before, Nunley's teammates gave her and her nerves a reprieve on Saturday, pounding out seven hits and two home runs against Virginia Tech.

"I'm more confident in myself when we have runs," Nunley said. "That helps."

Nunley looked the part.

The freshman tossed her second complete game in less than 24 hours, carrying UK to a 6-2 victory over Virginia Tech at John Cropp Stadium. With the win - a school-record-tying 40th of the year - the Wildcats move into Sunday's final in the Lexington Regional. UK will face Notre Dame, Virginia Tech or Marshall at 1 p.m. ET with a chance to advance to a second Super Regional in three years with a win.

It's close to a lock that Nunley (26-8) will toe the rubber in that game. Considering she has allowed just one earned run on seven hits and three walks against 10 strikeouts in 15 innings of work on Friday and Saturday, it certainly makes sense for Rachel Lawson to ride her workhorse.

"We've been using and I feel confident with both Kelsey and (Lauren) Cumbess going in there and then Katie Henderson's given us some really good innings," Lawson said. "But with that said, Kelsey's won so many games for us it would be nice to see her finish the tournament tomorrow."

If not for a play in the second inning that was initially called an error but eventually changed to a hit, Nunley would enter Sunday looking for her second no-hitter in a row.

Nunley started the frame with a 2-0 lead after Lauren Cumbess hit a two-run first-inning home run, but walked the lead-off batter. The next at-bat resulted in a tapper back to the pitcher that Nunley charged. As she reached for the ball, she tweaked her left ankle and could not make the play, committing an error.

If not for the fact that Nunley is from a small town called Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., and played basketball and volleyball growing up, Lawson would likely have been much more concerned about her star pitcher when she came up lame.

"The one good thing about having a country girl on your team is their parents usually just strap 'em up," Lawson said. "They don't have athletic trainers out there or anything, so they don't know any different. They just get back out there."

That's exactly what Nunley did, taking one warm-up pitch to test the ankle beforehand.

She retired the next two batters on a strikeout and groundout before hitting Kiara Ota with a pitch to load the bases with two outs. Nunley then coaxed a grounder to shortstop that looked like would end the inning, but the hard-hit ball took a big hop that Christian Stokes could not corral. After a scoring change, the play would cost Nunley a no-hitter.

"One hit, we won," Nunley said. "It doesn't matter."

Nunley is thinking much more about the way UK's ascendant offense performed.

After the Wildcats were handcuffed in a loss to South Carolina in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Lawson made it clear to her hitters that they would need to improve for UK to advance in the postseason. After pounding out 10 hits against Marshall star Andi Williamson on Friday and showing some power against three different Virginia Tech pitchers, the Cats have proven the were listening.

"I think we came out knowing that this is our time, this our stadium and we have to make sure that we own it," said Krystal Smith.

Entering the matchup with Virginia Tech, the UK second baseman had not homered in a month and a day. But on Saturday, Smith counted a two-run home run among her two hits. The blast landed on top of the batting cage over the fence in left field and provided Kentucky's final 6-2 margin.

"We've been practicing all week on the pitches that we were going to be expecting to see," Smith said. "So I think I went up there with a lot of confidence in my swing."

Confidence is a word that comes up a lot in talking to the Cats right now. If they can sustain it, UK could make a lot more noise in this NCAA Tournament.

"The fact that we came out and hit the ball hard against such a good pitcher and then today to be able to have so many different looks and to hit a couple home runs, hit the ball hard, do that is really encouraging as we move forward," Lawson said.

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