FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - No. 1 seed Tennessee won its third SEC Tournament title with a 3-1 victory over No. 10 seed South Carolina in Saturday's championship game at Bogle Park in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
The Lady Vols dominated the conference this season, winning both the SEC regular-season and tournament titles. "It was a part of our goal," tournament MVP Kiki Milloy said about taking both titles, "two thirds of the goal so let's go get the national championship."
"You know this is the best conference in America, and to be able to win the regular-season and the tournament championship, that's just an amazing feat," Tennessee head coach Karen Weekly said. "I'm just so proud of them and so proud to be their coach."
After both teams pushed across one run in the first inning, but the Lady Vols jumped ahead in the third frame, taking advantage of a fielding error by the Gamecocks and piecing together three hits score two and move ahead, 3-1.
They held on to the lead for the remainder of the game as stout defense and strong pitching on both sides kept either team from scoring again.
Starter Payton Gottshall held things down in the circle for UT for five frames, allowing only three hits and one walk while striking out two of the 18 batters she faced. Ashley Rogers led the Lady Vols through the final two innings, striking out the side in the sixth and sealing the victory with the quick catch of a line-drive missile sent back up the middle.
"Once we knew we were going to have to play three games in two days that kind of changed things for us. I had all the confidence in the world starting Payton today, and for her to give us five innings like she did and basically just shut them down after that first inning, that is really, really big," Weekly said about Gottshall performing on the big stage. "She's a warrior. She just wants the ball. She was bummed that I took her out, but that's what I love about her, that's why her teammates love playing behind her."
Tennessee collected eight hits and four walks, led by designated player Jamison Brockenbrough's 3-for-3 performance, including the go-ahead two-RBI single and a double. McKenna Gibson also had a great day at the plate, going 2-for-3, while Riley West came in clutch with the game-tying RBI single in the first.
"We just play for each other. We have a wristband, and it says 'family, forget about me, I love you,'" Milloy said. "It just means we play for each other."
South Carolina's ace Donnie Gobourne entered in the fourth inning to close out the game, striking out four batters while allowing two walks and two hits, but no runs, after facing 12 of the Lady Vols.
Bailey Betenabugh started in the circle for the Gamecocks, facing 10 batters over 1.2 innings and finishing with a strikeout, three hits and two walks allowed before passing the ball to Karsen Ochs. Ochs endured the loss after taking over in the second as she tossed just 1.1 innings against eight batters, striking out one and giving up three hits.
How It Happened
T1 | Gottshall started her reign in the circle with a strikeout before Zoe Laneaux reamed a pitch to the wall in right center for a triple. She scored on the next pitch off a sac fly to center by Riley Blampied before another strikeout halted South Carolina's energy. South Carolina 1, Tennessee 0
B1 | Betenbaugh gave up a costly walk in the bottom of the first, putting Zaida Puni on first with one out. Gibson smacked a double into center, pushing Puni to third, but Lair Beautae went down swinging to give the Gamecocks two outs. But Tennessee wouldn't be denied as West snuck in an RBI single through the left side to even the score before Mackenzie Donihoo's fly out to center ended the inning. South Carolina 1, Tennessee 1
B2 | With one out, Brockenbrough crushed a double to the wall in center before Katie Taylor flied out to centerfielder Blampied. Betenbaugh threw four straight balls to give Kiki Milloy a free pass to first and the Gamecocks put Ochs on the mound to close out the second with another fly out to center. South Carolina 1, Tennessee 1
B3 | Gibson led off the inning with her second hit of the game in the form of a single through the right side. With Brylee Mesusan pinch running on first, Beautae flied out to left field for the first out of the frame before a fielding error by Blankenship let West safely reach first, advancing Mesusan to second. Tennessee continued to put the pressure on, as Donihoo loaded the bases with a single into the 5-6 hole. Although the Gamecocks were able to get the force out at home on the next play, Brockenbrough dropped a pop fly in no man's land behind third base, pushing the Lady Vols ahead with two runs. Ochs settled down to strike out Taylor for the final out, ending the rally. Tennessee 3, South Carolina 1
On closing with Rogers for the save..."I hoped we'd have her available for a few innings and it worked out really well for us. She was pretty much ready from the third inning on."
On Tennessee's focus before NCAA play..."I think we've got some people in the middle of the order that are really, really good hitters and just really aren't hitting their stride right now. and we're facing great pitching, but I just feel like we can get it done all the way through. This weekend we got some great production out of the bottom of the order which was huge. And I don't think this team has yet put together their best game, but they just come to win and come to compete. And just cleaning up our defense a little. We had some miscommunication on some plays that kind of got us in some binds and, you know, we'll go to work on that when we get back to Knoxville.'
On winning both regular-season and tournament titles... "We talk about our goals. We talk about how this is only part of our goal. We even held the previous regular-season and SEC tournament championship trophies that we had that we hadn't won in a couple years. Just knowing the weight that it takes to win these championships and now that we've got it, it just feels so great."
On her plate approach..."Just staying in attack mode for my at bats. I feel best when I'm just hunting my pitches and getting those good pitches over the white and not letting the pitcher let up like every single swing, even if I foul it off, even if I do get out, knowing that I'm on them and that they're going to feel me every single at bat."
On Tennessee's pitching staff... "I've been able to see them since the fall and Ashley, I've been with her for four years now, but just knowing what they can do and knowing how much they can carve up some batters. They came out there and they did that this weekend."
On celebrating the title and the NCAA selection show..."Every single win that we get, we celebrate for the 24 hours that we have. We celebrate until midnight and then it's back to business. We're ready for the selection show tomorrow and we're going to be excited to see where we seed."
Both teams await the NCAA Selection Show on Sunday night. The bracket for the NCAA Tournament will be released at 6 p.m. CT on ESPN2.