Gators, KSP In High-Energy Lockstep Again


GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For the second straight night, Florida coach Tim Walton had glowing words for an exuberant home crowd and lively (not to mention advantageous) environment that helped ignite his team for a second straight victory in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. 

Much like they did to Texas A&M about 24 hours earlier, fifth-seeded UF jumped on Kentucky, the tourney’s No. 4 seed, in the first inning, got the Pressly Stadium faithful instantly into the game, and rolled to an impressive 9-3 quarterfinal-round victory Thursday that moved the 12th-ranked Gators (43-15) in Friday night’s semifinals to face league regular-season champ, tourney top-seed and fourth-ranked Arkansas (42-9).

“Same as last night. I thought our our crowd did a really nice job, was really energetic before the game even started,” Walton said. “It’s a lot more fun to play in an atmosphere like that. It’s obviously not easy to do and be consistent with that, but, man, it sure is nice on the field to hear that roar and the cheers to feel the dugout’s intensity grow whenever the fans in the stands get after it.” 

The home team, of course, did its part. Not in a small way, either. 

Walton believes the Gators found a little something extra about themselves back on April 30 in their 2-1 extra-inning win at LSU, courtesy of a homer from Cheyenne Lindsey in the ninth. There has been an air of late-season confidence that has carried over into the early postseason. It was there from the jump in Wednesday’s second-round win, and erupted against the Wildcats (35-17) with one of the best collective versions of this UF squad in weeks. 

“Playing in front of Gator Nation is just huge,” junior shortstop Skylar Wallace said. 

 

Speedy freshman leadoff hitter Kendra Falby, like Thursday night against the Aggies, got the Gators going with an infield single to start the game. Before the inning was over the Wildcats had changed pitchers and UF led 3-0. And even after UK, two batters into its first inning, cut into the lead on a moon-shot homer from Lauren Johnson that landed on Museum Road, the Gators responded with three more runs in their second on a bases-loaded ground-rule double by Charla Echols and a RBI single from freshman Reagan Walsh to make it 6-2. 

When it was done: 

* UF had nine runs (with eight RBI) on 11 hits, the second-most against a league opponent since April 3.

* Falby had three hits and scored three times. Walsh had three hits and three RBI. Super senior standout Hannah Adams, who returned to action Wednesday from a hand injury after missing 14 games, went 1-for-2 with a torched RBI double into the left field gap. 

* Wallace broke out of a 6-for-26 slump over the last 11 games with a homer to dead-center.

* Though she gave up three runs on four hits through the first nine batters she faced, starter Elizabeth Hightower settled down to allow no runs after a lead-off second-inning homer, then gave way to Rylee Trilcek, who held Kentucky scoreless and with just two hits over her 2.2 innings. Not bad, considering the Wildcats came into the game with the SEC’s second-highest team batting average (.334) and with 72 homers on the season (compared to Florida’s 30).

* The Florida defense was terrific, as usual. 

* Oh, and Echols (this is big) was back to being her smiling sarcastic self, according to Walton. Apparently, when Echols smiles, it’s a sign. A very good one for the Gators. 

She wasn’t the only one beaming, either. It was fun out there, and it showed on the faces of the players and echoed with enthusiasm throughout the bleachers. The coach, too. 

The Gators had a lot to hug and celebrate about Thursday.

“There’s not one person on this team that’s even close to being as good as they’re capable of being,” Walton said. “They just have to have confidence in themselves. This game, it’s a grind. It’s been a grind. If we had a pitcher who was striking everybody out and making it easy, but nothing’s been easy for this team for two years. That’s the part.” 

He nodded. 

“That smile. This game always finds a way to reward hard work and really good teammates.”

For those wearing orange and blue, it was a fun night at KSP. Make that two in a row. And because of it the Gators will be out there again Friday.

Here’s betting their fans will be out in force for a third night, as well. 

 





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