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March 18, 2012

Kentucky sweeps South Carolina, still undefeated

Michael Williams' fist pierced through the air in celebration.

The Kentucky senior had just hit a bases-loaded double through the right side in the bottom of the sixth to give the Wildcats a 5-3 lead over No. 2 South Carolina. Standing on second base, he could barely contain himself.

"It's just something that happened naturally," Williams said. "It's the No. 2 team in the nation, back-to-back champions and we just wanted to make a statement. I'm just proud of our team."

No. 16 Kentucky (21-0 3-0 Southeastern Conference) finished the sweep of the two-time defending national champion Gamecocks (15-4, 0-3 SEC) 6-3 before a season-high crowd of 2,571 thanks to Williams' go-ahead hit and a two-run homer from junior catcher Luke Maile in the first inning. Second baseman J.T. Riddle scored on a wild pitch in the sixth to give the Wildcats their final margin of victory.

The win stretched the Wildcats' longest winning streak in program history to 21 games and gave them a sweep of one of the nation's top programs. It's also a major change for a team that went 25-30 a year ago.

"It's the biggest weekend at home since I've been head coach," said Gary Henderson, in his third year as head coach.

South Carolina starter Colby Holmes entered the game with an ERA less than one, but gave up three runs in 4.2 innings. Kentucky starter Corey Littrell gave up three runs in 5.1 innings before the bullpen shut the Gamecock offense down.

Maile led the Wildcats on the weekend, going 4-11 with two home runs and six RBI. Freshman A.J. Reed went 5-11 at the plate for the series with two RBI. He also picked up the win on the mound in relief on Saturday, pitching two shutout innings.

"He's going to be a really, really good player here," Henderson said. "He's going to be a frontline guy, hitting and pitching."

The Kentucky bullpen didn't allow a run all weekend, throwing 10.1 shutout innings with two walks and 12 strikeouts. None of Kentucky's starters earned a win, but the bullpen held firm in each of Kentucky's wins.

That, combined with timely hitting and solid defense, propelled the Wildcats to their first sweep of South Carolina since 2006. The winning run for Kentucky came in the sixth inning or later in all three games.

"I really liked that we got double plays when we really needed them," Henderson said. "When the game was screaming that we needed a double play, we got four or five of them (this weekend). I thought that showed real poise in our mound and in the confidence of our infield kids."

The Wildcats, who are the only undefeated team in the nation, had been unranked until two weeks ago. But after sweeping South Carolina, they're not likely to avoid attention anymore.

"I'm sure it's coming if it hasn't yet," Maile said. "We'll take a bull's-eye on our back the whole year if it means we can keep going undefeated."

Weekend wrap up

Kentucky was trailing 3-2 entering the bottom of the ninth of the SEC opener with South Carolina reliever Evan Beal on the mound. Beal had struck the side out in the eighth, but hit freshman Austin Cousino in the first pitch of the final inning. Maile launched a 2-1 pitch over the centerfield wall for a walk-off 4-3 win. Maile drove in three runs in the win, while junior Taylor Rogers gave up three runs in 5.2 innings and the UK bullpen shut the Gamecocks out down the stretch.

The Wildcats clinched the series on Saturday with another 4-3 win and some more late game heroics. Freshman A.J. Reed hit a double in the bottom of the seventh, his only hit of the day, to drive in Cousino. Reed also picked up the win on the mound, entering in the bottom of the sixth for starter Jerad Grundy and throwing two scoreless innings. Grundy gave up seven hits and three earned runs in his first career SEC start. UK closer Trevor Gott struck out South Carolina's Brison Celek to finish the game, earning his fourth save of the season.


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