COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A trademark of the 2014 Kentucky softball team has been its ability to bounce back and never give up. That was never more apparent than in its 4-3, nine-inning win over Mississippi State in the first round of the SEC Tournament on Wednesday.
The never-say-die attitude has fueled UK to a perfect 7-0 record in extra inning contests, but the most recent win meant just a little bit more than the previous six.
The victory -- the Wildcats' first in the SEC Tournament since 2008 -- gave them a school-record 42 wins on the season.
Wednesday, it was sophomore Nikki Sagermann with a walk-off hit in the ninth inning after Kentucky lost a 3-0 lead in the sixth inning.
"That's one thing about our team, we don't give up," Sagermann said. "We're known for that. If we get behind, we're going to do anything we can to come back and have a good game. I was pretty confident actually. Our top of the lineup was coming through, I was confident we were still going to win, I wasn't worried too much."
UK jumped out to a 3-0 advantage in the first inning and sophomore right-hander Kelsey Nunley was dealing in the circle through the first five frames. Four outs away from a win, the Wildcats gave up three two-out runs in the sixth to let MSU tie the game.
The game was tied, and the UK offense had scored just one run since it chased starter Alison Owen in the first inning, but the confidence never wavered. The philosophy was simply to not give up.
The patience paid off in the ninth when a trio of sophomores, facing Mississippi State relief pitcher Alexis Silkwood for the fourth time, came through. Ansley Smith led off with a walk and sophomore Christian Stokes doubled her to third. After Sylver Samuel fouled out, Nikki Sagermann stepped to the plate in a situation she loves.
"I was pretty excited when I came up," Sagermann said. "I was seeing the ball pretty well. I know I was only 1-for-3 before it, but especially with one out and a runner on third, I knew I had to get it through the infield, a sacrifice fly or a base hit. I love situations like that. I was ready."
Sagermann sent a liner into center to give the Wildcats the win and set up a quarterfinal matchup with rival Tennessee on Thursday.
After the Bulldogs tied the game in the sixth, they had multiple chances to score the go-ahead run in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Seven of MSU's 12 runners left on base came in the final three frames.
Mississippi State had runners on second and third in the seventh, first and second with one out in the eighth and the bases loaded with two down in the ninth. Nunley and the UK defense did not allow a single runner to score.
"Just keep fighting," Nunley said of her mentality in the circle with runners on base. "They're going to get on. They're a good hitting team, they're going to find ways to get on. I had to just keep on battling, keep throwing hard."
Nunley kept battling. Even after she hit six batters in the final three innings, she kept battling and got those clutch outs. The righty threw 142 pitches, and while she might have had her best stuff in the first five innings, her ability to get the clutch out in the late innings was most important.
"My team told me they had my back," Nunley said. "I knew to just go out there and no matter what happened, just give it all I had and my team would be behind me. That's what I did."
Clutch pitching, timely hitting and a never-say-die attitude were the keys Wednesday. Thursday, it will take that and more to top second-seeded Tennessee. The seventh-seeded Wildcats have never advanced to the SEC Tournament's semifinals, but that won't stop this year's team from believing.
In a season of record-breaking wins and firsts, there's no time like the present to add another note to the long list of accomplishments for the 2014 season and the senior class. Especially for a team that will never give up.