If it looked and felt like a familiar game, you weren't alone. The two teams have met now three times in the last two years in a regional with the three games being decided by a grand total of four runs. UK had been on the losing end of the first two meetings that came with its fair share of drama. Kent State outlasted UK in the opening game of the 2012 Gary Regional in 21 innings and then sent UK home for good in the regional championship game on a controversial home run in the eighth inning.
This time would be different, even if it didn't look like it for the first two hours of the game.
"It was nice to beat them," said junior starting pitcher and National Player of the Year A.J. Reed. "They gave us a little trouble in 2012, so it was good to come out here and get that win and have that ninth inning."
UK's offense was stagnant all afternoon, mustering just three hits until the ninth inning, but when the game was on the line the Wildcats staved off elimination for at least one more day. As the team has done all year long, Kentucky battled till the very end and the Wildcats showed their mettle with their backs against the wall.
After failing to get anything going offensively through the first eight innings, UK would not go down without a fight.
"I'm really proud of our guys," said UK head coach Gary Henderson. "I felt like we would come around like I always do. Sometimes it doesn't happen, but with this group most of the time it has, especially offensively. I think a very unbiased opinion would be A.J. was outstanding. It's cliche but big-time players step up when you need them and we need A.J. today and he gave it to us."
Following a one-out single from Max Kuhn to start the ninth inning, Reed drove him in from second, after a balk, with a double to the right-center gap for the first run of the game. The clutch hit from Reed was just what the Wildcats needed from their star player.
Not only was the hit big for the team, but for Reed as well. Entering today's game, Reed was in the midst of a minor slump that saw him going six games without an RBI and tally just three hits in his last 18 at-bats.
"It was kind of a surreal feeling when I walked up and Max was on first base with one out and everybody got a little bit louder," Reed said. "I'm sure running through everybody's mind was a home run, but I was just trying to get on base and extend the inning for us."
With two outs and the bases loaded, Thomas Bernal stepped into the box and delivered a soft liner down the left field line for the go-ahead two-run double. Matt Reida, the very next batter, would then give UK one more insurance run on a sharp grounder through the left side to score Storm Wilson, while Bernal was thrown out at the plate trying to score as well.
On the mound, Reed threw his first-career complete game in giving up only two runs and striking out three, while only throwing 107 pitches. In fact, Reed never got to a single three-ball count against any Kent State batter. After allowing two runs on four hits to the first four batters in the first inning, he would retire 14 straight batters, while giving up no more runs and only three hits the rest of the way.
The win now gives UK some much needed confidence entering another elimination game on Sunday.
"It definitely gives us a lot of momentum," Reed said. "Right now we just have to be able to ride the high that we're on and take that momentum into the next game whoever we're playing. Whoever we're pitching is going to throw well. I think they'll be able to feed off how I pitched today and we're going to be pretty confident at the plate after that inning. I think it's going to give us a lot of momentum."
Coming into today's contest, Kentucky was 0-21 when trailing after eight innings this season. Big wins that come late in ball games can have a carry-over effect. That's exactly what UK is banking on for the remainder of this regional.
"I think any time you win a game late, kids feel good," Henderson said. "Everybody feels good. Your fans feel good, the coaches and the players. Winning late or losing late has a greater impact. I think it does in all sports. We'll feel good tonight. We'll feel good going to the ballpark tomorrow morning and if we score early, then you start riding that thing out."
Kentucky will face another stiff challenge on Sunday against the loser of Louisville and Kansas for the right to go to the championship series of the regional and would have to beat the winner of Louisville or Kansas twice in that championship series. In UK's seven previous regional appearances, the Wildcats have bounced back to make the regional championship in five of those.
So, knowing UK's history in past regionals, don't count out the Wildcats just yet.