By Zach Abolverdi, Correspondent
Mississippi State played spoiler on Senior Day for the No. 7 Florida softball team, winning the program’s first series against UF since 2004.
MSU (32-20, 9-15 SEC) took the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, 4-2, holding off a late rally at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium. The Gators (40-15, 12-12) won the series finale, 2-0.
Florida finished the regular season with a 3-5 record in SEC series. Three of those five losses came at home, including the last two series against Alabama and MSU.
“I’m glad we got to 40 wins,” UF coach Tim Walton said. “We’re .500 in a tough league. Now we just have to move forward.
“My message to the team is, ‘This coach doesn’t need to tell you what to do. You need to figure out what you need to do individually and collectively.’ And I left it at that.”
In Game 2 of the series, the Bulldogs got on the scoreboard first when Kat Moore launched a two-run home run to right field, plating Fa Leilua. It was their third homer off Florida pitcher Kelly Barnhill after hitting two against her in Friday’s opener.
MSU added two more runs in the fifth and sixth innings. Bevia Robinson tripled to right field and brought home Grace Dabbs, and then Leilua scored again on Montana Davidson’s fly out to extend the lead to 4-0.
In her final regular-season home game with the Gators, Barnhill (27-11) finished with six hits allowed and three strikeouts in 6.1 innings (78 pitches).
“She pitched much better than she did Friday night,” Walton said. “I know she was disappointed in her performance, but she bounced back. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to get with her, but most of the time it’s really, really good.”
The Gators had an opportunity to make a run in the last two innings, loading the bases on three walks in the sixth. Sophia Reynoso couldn’t capitalize, popping up to second base for the final out.
UF once again had three runners on in the seventh, prompting MSU coach Jacquie Joseph to pull pitcher Grace Fagan for Friday starter Emily Williams. On the next at-bat, Florida’s Jaimie Hoover doubled down the left-field line to score seniors Alex Voss and Amanda Lorenz.
With two on base and two outs, Jordan Roberts stepped to the plate for the potential game-winning run. After Roberts broke a piece of the 2015 national championship sign on a foul ball, Williams struck her out looking to seal the series.
“You just want a chance to win,” Walton said. “Our whole team gave themselves a chance at the end, down to the last pitch two nights in a row. Just couldn’t get it done.”
Game 3 began with four more scoreless innings before the Gators took control in the fifth. Hoover reached on a fielder’s choice, Hannah Sipos scored and Lorenz also made it home on an error by MSU first baseman Sarai Niu.
That was all Florida needed, as freshman Elizabeth Hightower pitched a complete-game shutout. She struck out three batters and gave up six hits in 93 pitches.
“I thought Elizabeth did a good job of keeping us in the game until we were able to score a run,” Walton said. “She’s been doing that almost all of SEC play. She’s really pitched well and a had nice regular season for us as the Saturday starter.”
Hightower improved her record to 4-1 on Saturday and has the third-best ERA (.149) for a freshman in school history. With Barnhill on her way out, Hightower will have a bigger role in the circle next season.
“To be out seven innings was huge for me and my development,” Hightower said. “It felt amazing. I wasn’t nervous for one second. This year with Kelly was big for my upbringing here. She really helps with my mind set and really pushes me.”
Up next for the Gators is the SEC Tournament from Wednesday-Saturday in College Station, Texas. Walton’s team needed to sweep MSU to clinch a first-round bye.
“We get no time to practice before the tournament,” he said. “There’s no work, which is the unfortunate part about not getting the bye. Then again, part of that could be good for our team.”
Final tourney seedings and pairings will be determined after Sunday’s other league games.