The Kentucky softball team had just lost in walk-off for the third time in five days to Tennessee, this time in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
That didn't make it any easier.
"This game, it's hard to swallow," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "A lot of the games that we've played lately are hard to swallow."
The loss came after the Wildcats had built leads of 2-0 and 3-1 on the Lady Volunteers. UK (29-24) seemed unlikely to relinquish the lead with Kelsey Nunley on the mound in the postseason, but Tennessee (40-13) charged back anyway for a 5-4 win on a two-run single off the wall in left field by Meghan Gregg.
As Nunley's pitch count climbed, the Lady Volunteers began to hit her harder. Nunley stranded runners in scoring position in two of the first three innings, but she was unable to escape trouble in the fourth and fifth, allowing three runs, and she was lifted for Erin Rethlake. Rethlake, a true freshman, looked unfazed in her first postseason appearance, but two walks and an error undid her and UK in the seventh inning.
"We've done some things really, really well," Lawson said. "We just need to figure out how to finish games. We need to figure how to close games and we need to clean up some things. We played most of the game well, but when you're playing at this level and you're playing a team of this caliber you can't make mistakes and you certainly can't make mistakes at the end of games because I think people take advantage of that."
UK, which now will await its NCAA Tournament fate and Sunday's 10 p.m. ET Selection Show, will have to cut out some of those mistakes to duplicate last year's run to the Women's College World Series.
"The postseason really comes down to pitching and defense and hopefully get your timely hits," Lawson said. "So I think it's important that we spend the next couple of days focusing defensively, really trying to tighten that up."
To go with that, Wildcat pitchers will go to work refining things.
"It'll be nice to have a few days in a row to work on things in the bullpen," Lawson said. "We really haven't had that luxury a lot lately. So to be able to have a few days to tighten up some of our pitches, make them break a little bit better, not keep them on the same plane, I think is going to be a big deal."
Though certainly and understandably disappointed after their seventh loss in a row, the Cats are ready to take advantage of a few days off and a chance to improve.
"It was a tough game, but we can just learn from it," said Maisie Steed, who had two hits against Tennessee." That's all we can do, is learn and move on and get back to Lexington and start working on things we need to work on and hopefully take it into the NCAA Tournament."
"We just gotta get back to Lexington and get back to work and hopefully just think of the postseason as a fresh start, try to turn things around," senior catcher Griffin Joiner said.
The Wildcats had arrived, breaking through and advancing to the 2014 Women's College World Series after repeated Super Regional trips.
What they didn't realize was they'd have to go right back to base camp once the following season began.
"I think that after going to the World Series they just expected everything now would be easy," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "And it's not easy. I think getting to the postseason is the hardest part. I think that's a valuable lesson our program had to learn and I think they learned it. I think they learned it the hard way."
The hard way, for UK, means a 29-23 regular-season record and a ranking of No. 24/25, down from top 10 preseason. The Cats enter the Southeastern Conference Tournament as the No. 12 seed, set to open postseason play against fifth-seeded Tennessee at 7:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday on the SEC Network.
"I think what's important right now going into the postseason is that you're playing good softball," Lawson said. "I think it's important that we're moving around fast. I think it's important we're communicating. I think at this point, you've learned a lot during the season, it's just important that you trust yourself, you fly around, you play good softball and then what happens happens."
Though the last month has been a struggle (UK has lost six straight games and 14 of 18), the Cats do have some experience to call on when it comes to playing good softball. UK sat at 21-5 before a trip to Auburn, but it was the previous SEC series - the Cats' first - that Lawson says was when the challenge ahead became clear.
"We were playing really well and we were loose and then we had that big snowstorm and we weren't able to practice," Lawson said. "We hung out in a hotel for two days and then we flew out to A&M (on March 5) and we got in at 4 in the morning. I think that wasn't ideal. I think when we got to A&M I think they just expected, 'OK, SEC play is here and we're going to run through it.' "
Instead, UK went 5-19 in SEC play and dropped its final five conference series.
"I think it's important you have a short memory," Lawson said.
The Cats' collective memory will be immediately tested.
UK's final regular-season series was a sweep at the hands of the same Lady Volunteer team the Cats will face on Wednesday, dropping the final two games in walk-off fashion. To add to the intrigue, the two teams shared the same connecting flight from Atlanta to Baton Rouge, La.
It would be Lawson's preference to play one of the four teams that didn't appear on UK's regular-season schedule, but she isn't worried much about that.
"They're all incredible teams so it doesn't really matter which one you play," Lawson said. "It is strange playing a team so early, especially sharing a flight down with them, but I think at the end of the day both our goals are similar."
The goal, of course, is to advance deep into the conference and NCAA tournaments, just like last year when Kelsey Nunley - UK's likely Wednesday starter - carried the Cats to the World Series. As trying as the regular season was at points, 2015 will be remembered for what happens next.
"I think they've done it in the past and they were relieved when the regular season was over," Lawson said.
(2) Houston Rockets (Terrence Jones) vs. (3) Los Angeles Clippers
Game 1 of the first Western Conference Semifinals of Jones' career will tip off in Houston at 9:30 p.m. ET on TNT. Jones scored 15 points and grabbed five rebounds in the Rockets' 103-94 Game 5 victory over the Dallas Mavericks last Tuesday. The Clippers and Rockets split the regular season series, 2-2, with Houston claiming the latter two contests. Jones sat out both Rockets losses due to injury.
(1) Atlanta Hawks vs. (5) Washington Wizards (John Wall), WSH 1-0
The Wizards continued their postseason undefeated streak with a 104-98 victory over the top-seeded Hawks on the road. Wall fought through a sprained left wrist to notch his fourth double-double in five playoff games, by way of 18 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds. Game 2 is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday. TNT will broadcast live from Atlanta.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (3) Chicago Bulls (Nazr Mohammed)
After sitting out the first six games of the Bulls' first round series with the Milwaukee Bucks, the 37-year-old Mohammed recorded two points, one block, and one rebound in Chicago's 120-66 Game 7 annihilation of Milwaukee. Game 1 with the Cavs will begin tonight in Cleveland at 7:00 p.m. on TNT.
When Thursday night proved otherwise, the six-time Super Bowl champions wasted no time in making Dupree the newest member of their storied franchise.
"It's a great experience right now," Dupree said. "I'm so blessed to be in this situation. I can't wait to get to Pittsburgh and get to work."
Riding high off the momentum of 7.5 sacks in a first team All-SEC senior season, Dupree became a household name among NFL general managers following his performance at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. The 6-foot-4 former Georgia high school basketball state champion recorded a remarkable 4.56-second 40-yard dash and 42-inch vertical leap.
"This young man has some measurables," said ESPN analyst and Super Bowl winning head coach Jon Gruden. "He can jump right out of the gym. ... I like the way he competes."
Dupree joins a once-historical Steelers defense in desperate need of youthful rejuvenation. Pittsburgh saw longtime defensive standouts Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor, as well as 27-year-old Jason Worilds, retire this offseason. The Steelers ranked 18th in total defense in 2014.
"He has position versatility," Gruden said. "Keith Butler, the new defensive coordinator, has to be happy that Bud Dupree fell this far down the board. Hard to find a young man with this type of strength, speed, and power."
Dupree becomes UK's 14th first round selection in program history, and the first since 2003. The one-time tight end joins Danny Trevathan, Wesley Woodyard, and Avery Williamson as the fourth Kentucky linebacker in the NFL.
"They expect me to come in and have an impact right away," Dupree said. "I just have to prove them right and go in, work hard, listen to the older guys and the coaches and I'll be good."
While it was no secret that the Steelers would be looking toward the defensive side of the ball when making their first round selection, Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert shed light on the situation shortly before Thursday's big night.
"I think the cornerback group is good," Colbert said. "The outside linebacker types, which for us is a 4-3 defensive end for some 4-3 teams, this is probably as good a group at that position as I've seen in 10 to 15 years. It's really an exceptional group with a lot of impact-type guys."
Combined with the college statistics and the athletic measurements to back it up, Dupree's work ethic has football fans excited for the possibilities he brings to the table.
"He said he wore No. 2 (at Kentucky) because 'I'm trying to be No. 1, but I'm working like I'm No. 2,'" said ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper, Jr. "You've got to like that attitude, you've got to like that approach of Alvin 'Bud' Dupree."
The wait was a little longer than expected for Bud Dupree, but the Kentucky star appears to have found a good landing spot.
Dupree landed in Pittsburgh as the No. 22 overall pick in the first round. He joins a Steeler team renowned for its defense, and especially its edge pass rushing. We'll have more on this as the night goes on and a story on Friday morning, but in the meantime we congratulate Bud!