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Plenty of positives from softball's record SEC Tournament run

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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It wasn't the ending the Kentucky softball team was looking for, but its 2014 SEC Tournament run -- the longest in program history by two games -- had plenty of positives and was the perfect tuneup for the NCAA Tournament.

The seventh-seeded Wildcats won three games at the 2014 Tournament and made it to the championship game for the first time in program history. UK took downed No. 10 Mississippi State Wednesday and followed with upset wins over second-seeded Tennessee and sixth-seeded LSU Thursday and Friday before a 5-2 loss to No. 5 Georgia in Saturday's title game.

In the four days in Columbia, S.C., head coach Rachel Lawson saw her team change completely.

"I felt like my team grew up overnight," Lawson said. "I felt like we were a lot tougher. When we stepped on the field on Wednesday, it felt like a different team. There was a grit and a confidence about us, and I knew they knew they belonged here, and that's not really happened in the past.

"Before, we were happy to be in the tournament, grateful that we were able to survive the SEC conference. Now, we're in the next step in our program, where we believe we belong at least in the discussion of the elite."

The Wildcats found a sense of fearlessness, grit and determination in four games at Carolina Softball Stadium. They never trailed in their first three contests and continued to battle back, even when Mississippi State and LSU tied the game in the sixth and seventh innings, respectively, to send it into extra innings.

Coming into the tournament, Kentucky had won one game in the event's history. In 2014, the Cats won three.

The Wildcats made it to the semifinals once, in 2009, when they won one game in an eight-team field. This year, it was all the way to the championship game.

"I think this was a great showing for Kentucky," Lawson said. "Playing the extra game put us in a little bit of a deficit to the teams that didn't, but the fact that we were able to grind through the tournament shows how tough our team is. Especially in a lot of spots we had a lot of really young athletes at some key positions, I felt like they did a nice job."

Kentucky's SEC Tournament makes the Cats that much more prepared for next weekend's NCAA Tournament.

The Wildcats have made the NCAA Super Regional in two of the past three seasons, and as they hope for a second consecutive bid to host the NCAA Regional, they can have a positive SEC Tournament run to build off of for the first time.

Saturday in front of a sold-out, record crowd of 1,480, sophomores Kelsey Nunley, Nikki Sagermann and Christian Stokes all were named to the All-Tournament Team.

Nunley pitched 25 innings in three games and earned wins in every contest. She had a 1.63 ERA, struck out 17 and walked just five. The winningest pitcher in program history in the postseason with six career victories, she led the charge each day with her ability to shake off adversity.

Stokes, a South Carolina native, went 6-for-8 in the first two games of the tournament with two home runs. In four games, she led UK with a .429 batting average, six hits and a .529 on base percentage. The shortstop added a number of spectacular plays in the infield to extinguish opponents' scoring chances.

Sagermann drove in the winning run in Wednesday's nine-inning affair before a solo home run gave UK its first run in Saturday's title game. The third baseman was second on the team with a .333 batting average, five hits and a .533 slugging percentage in addition to tying Stokes with a team-best three RBI.

Sunday night at 10 p.m. ET, the 64-team NCAA Tournament field will be announced. The Wildcats are hoping to be a top-16 seed and Regional host for the second consecutive season. This season though, Kentucky will enter the tournament after a program-record SEC Championship run.

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