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Sunday, June 23, 2024

With an offense as potent as the Gators' has been this season, even a seemingly close game can turn into a blowout by the final out.

No. 1 UF (57-3) turned a 1-run lead in the bottom of the fifth inning into a 7-1 victory against Texas A&M (32-21) on Saturday to advance to the NCAA Regional finals against Lehigh. The Gators will face Mountain Hawks on Sunday at 1 p.m. after Lehigh defeated Florida A&M and Texas A&M (in a rematch) in back-to-back games Saturday afternoon.

The Gators scored 1 run in each of the first two innings, but the Aggies pulled to within 1 in the top of the fifth. UF responded right away with 2 runs in the bottom of the inning and 3 more in the sixth, putting the game out of reach.

"If they score, we want to come back and start chipping away," said catcher Kristina Hilberth, who led the team with 3 runs, 2 of which came after Texas A&M scored. "We've been fortunate to string some hits together in the last few games when they've scored. We've been able to answer back with the same amount or more. We're just trying to keep (our pitcher) comfortable and keep ourselves in the game."

The Gators came in expecting a competitive game with the Aggies, who knocked them out of the NCAA Tournament the last two years, so they knew momentum swings would be critical Saturday.

"Coming out and scoring early in the game or if the other team scores, you've got to grab the momentum back, and we did a really good job of that today," UF coach Tim Walton said.

Walton added that his team knew Texas A&M would score, so scoring early was just as important as responding in the final two innings.

The Gators may not have expected the Aggies to get as many hits as they did, however. Despite only allowing 1 run, pitcher Stacey Nelson (36-3, 0.44 ERA) gave up nine hits on the day.

"They found ways to get on base. They were poking the ball through the infield left and right," Nelson said. "As a pitcher, you're not happy about nine hits or 1 run, but when your offense scores 7, you're happy."

At the postgame press conference, Nelson was also pleased &ndash albeit surprised &ndash to learn she struck out a season-high 14 batters, two off her career high.

"You could tell she was amped up out there, and she tried to throw the ball too hard at times," Walton said. "To have that many strikeouts and give up that many hits, it's a rarity."

Walton had not decided if Nelson or sophomore Stephanie Brombacher would get the start in the championship game against Lehigh.

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Nelson vowed to improve on her performance if she is handed the ball to start against the Mountain Hawks.

"Championship game of Regionals is always exciting," Nelson said. "I hope we come out tomorrow as ready as we were today. Like we keep saying, everybody was heads-up, our offense was scoring, and if I'm pitching tomorrow, I promise I'll give up fewer hits."

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