Gators softball: No. 16 Florida edged by No. 23 Kentucky in tightly contested series

Ainslie Lee
The Gainesville Sun

The slim chance of the 16th-ranked Florida Gators softball team hosting regionals in Gainesville got that much slimmer over the weekend. Florida dropped its final regular season SEC series to the No. 23 Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, finishing the regular season 35-19 and 11-13 in league play.

The Gators worked their way on top of the Wildcats in Friday's series opener as graduate transfer Pal Egan delivered a game-winning two-run home run in the top of the seventh inning to beat Kentucky, 3-2.

Saturday and Sunday's games were two more tilts that came down to the final frame as Kentucky walked off Saturday's 7-6 win with a two-run seventh inning. On Sunday, the teams found themselves in a pitching duel that kept the game scoreless until a Wildcats home run in the sixth gave Kentucky all it needed for a 1-0 win and clinch the series.

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Here are takeaways from the weekend.

Hightower continues to shoulder the load

Nothing much changed in terms of Florida's pitching plans as Florida head coach Tim Walton started fifth-year senior Elizabeth Hightower on Friday and Sunday and allowed the Gators' most seasoned arm to go the distance in both appearances.

Kentucky's pair of runs in Friday's game came courtesy of one swing as Kentucky's Kennedy Sullivan drove a two-out, two-run home run over the left field wall to give the Wildcats a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first. Sullivan drove home Kayla Kowalik, who reached on a single up the gut.

Hightower kept the Wildcats hitless as the Gators mounted a comeback. They trimmed Kentucky's lead to one run on Egan's RBI single in the fifth. Egan later went on to deliver the game-winning shot with sophomore Reagan Walsh on base.

Fortunately for the Gators, Hightower hadn't run out of steam and was still locked in as she forced the Wildcats down in order to polish off the win.

Hightower briefly appeared in Saturday's loss, giving up two decisive runs in the seventh. Two Kentucky hits and Hightower's wild pitch allowed the Wildcats to bring across the tying run and set the stage for a RBI sac fly to win the game and even the series.

In Sunday's finale, one pitch made the difference as the only run came via a solo home run by Kentucky's Grace Lorsung in the bottom of the sixth.

Hightower finished her weekend with a combined 13.2 innings of action, nine hits, six walks, five earned runs and three strikeouts.

Lack of situational hitting stings Florida

Despite dropping the series, the Gators out-hit the Wildcats 17-16.

However, tallying hits only matters if you drive in runs with those hits. And unfortunately for the Gators, their lineup struggled mightily in that department; Florida went 3-for-19 runners in scoring position, stranding 12.

In Sunday's rubber match, the Gators and Wildcats finished the afternoon with the same mark as both teams went 0-for-5 from the plate with runners in scoring position and each stranded six runners.

And while Lorsung's home run in Game 3 was truly the series' decision maker, the Gators had the opportunity to tie or win the game in the top of the seventh as pinch hitters Kaila Pollard and Sam Roe had a one-out single and one-out double, respectfully, plating a pair of runners.

Avery Goelz would line out, bringing the game to Florida's last out, sophomore Kendra Falby, who had an impressive 2-for-3, two-RBI outing that featured a pair of triples in Game 2. However, her final at-bat of the series wouldn't go as planned as she popped out to third base, stranding the tying and game-winning runners in scoring position.

Gators now head to SEC Tournament

When Florida's final game against Kentucky wrapped up, there was still plenty of action happening around the SEC, which has been a fight club all season.

The fourth-ranked Tennessee Volunteers clinched the SEC's regular season title, but the rest of the conference has been dizzying.

Florida finds itself in the middle of the pack, but SEC Tournament seedings are all but decided. Many teams around the league had yet to finish up their final regular season series when the Gators' series against the Wildcats concluded.

The 16th-ranked Gators now wait to see where they land in the SEC standings, which will decide who they face in the first round of the SEC Tournament, which is being hosted by Arkansas in Fayetteville.