COLUMBIA, S.C. -- For the first time in program history, the Kentucky softball team is headed to the SEC Tournament Semifinals, and for a second consecutive game, it was sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley leading the charge.
A day after a nine-inning, walk-off win over Mississippi State, the seventh-seeded Wildcats faced No. 2 seed Tennessee. UK squeaked out a 2-0 win over the Lady Vols in a pitcher's duel in the semifinal contest.
"I thought today was a good day for us," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "It was a great day on the mound for both pitchers. It was a real pitcher's duel and I felt pretty lucky to be on the winning end of it."
Nunley was once again a force in the circle for the Wildcats. She pitched a complete-game shutout to earn the win after throwing 142 pitches in Wednesday's victory. The shutout was Nunley's career-best sixth of the year, tied for the third most in a season in program history.
The Lady Vols were held scoreless for just the second time this season. Only 13 times have they been limited to five hits or fewer.
"I think Coach Lawson really did a good job at calling pitches and keeping Tennessee off balance," Nunley said. "Making them guess at what I was throwing and I think it really worked."
The sophomore showed no signs of wearing down in a second consecutive game with temperatures near 100 degrees. Nunley allowed just five hits and worked quickly. She gave up one extra-base hit -- a leadoff double in the fourth -- but proceeded to strike out the next three UT batters.
Nunley was making quick work of UT until the seventh inning. With two outs and the bases empty, Tennessee tallied back-to-back hits followed by a UK fielding error to load the bases. That's when leadoff hitter Haley Tobler came to the plate.
Tobler worked the count full, and on the 10th pitch of the at-bat, Nunley threw a changeup. Tobler's bat never left her shoulder, and with that, the final three of UT's seven base runners were stranded, the winning run on first base.
"When you look at it, [Madison] Shipman was on deck so it was going to be the end of the game either way," Lawson said of the pitch selection to Tobler. "Either Kelsey was going to look really good throwing a strikeout or Shipman was going to look really good hitting a grand slam. Whichever way you look at it, I felt like it was a win-win situation for us. It may have seemed pretty gutsy to everyone else but it felt like a no-brainer to me so either way it was made for TV."
Nunley's changeup was working all game long and helped her to seven strikeouts. Tennessee, one of the conference's best hitting teams, was never able to adjust.
The second win of the tournament for Nunley now gives her five postseason wins in less than two seasons, tied for the most in school history.
"She's awesome, she works so hard and she did great today," senior Emily Gaines said. "I'm so proud of her. It was really hot out and she was just mowing them down. She was awesome."
On the other side, Tennessee pitcher Ellen Renfroe was nearly as effective, but not quite enough. She limited the Wildcats to seven hits and left eight UK runners on base.
It was single runs in the fourth and fifth inning though that gave Nunley all the cushion she needed to send Kentucky to the semifinals.
Gaines got the offense going in the fourth with a single, the only hit of the inning. Sophomore Maisie Steed went in as a pinch runner, advanced to second on a passed ball and was bunted to third. An Emily Jolly groundout scored the speedy sophomore to give the Wildcats a 1-0 advantage.
An inning later, it was South Carolina native Christian Stokes who sent a smash over the left field fence for a valuable insurance run. Stokes, who is 6-for-8 in the tournament, also had a homer to lead off Wednesday's game.
With two tournament wins and a semifinal berth secured, the history has been made for Kentucky. But with this team, they have no reason to stop now. They'll have another chance to make more history against sixth-seeded LSU on Friday. First pitch between the Wildcats and Tigers is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET on ESPNU.