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Sunday, June 23, 2024

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. &ndash Even Mother Nature couldn't stop the Gators' march toward a second straight Southeastern Conference Tournament Championship.

The championship game between No. 1 UF (55-3) and No. 5 Alabama (47-9) was delayed for an hour and a half due to rain, but a first-inning grand slam by shortstop Megan Bush put the Gators ahead by 3. The Crimson Tide rallied late, but the Gators prevailed 8-5 Saturday at Lee Softball Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.

"To repeat as tournament champions and SEC champions is probably one of the hardest things that we've accomplished in my coaching career, playing with the burden of being the No. 1 team and the target and all those things," UF coach Tim Walton said.

The Gators have worked all season to manage the expectations and demands that come with being the top-ranked team in the nation. Saturday, they had to work just to get a strike called.

UF pitcher Stacey Nelson (35-3, 0.43 ERA) and Kelsi Dunne of Alabama struggled to find the strike zone early on. As a result, the first inning and a half lasted an hour, and Nelson and Dunne combined for four walks and three hit batters as they tried to work the inside corner, the only place either one could get a called strike.

"I don't think I would have wanted to be a pitcher today," Alabama catcher Ashley Holcombe said. "Sometimes you just feel like you don't know what you have to do to get a strike called. But we had the same situation in the first inning &ndash bases loaded with one out &ndash and they hit the grand slam and we didn't."

Bush benefitted from the inside pitching in the first, as her bases-loaded shot to left field came on the 16th pitch of the at-bat.

"She pitched me inside the whole time, so I was just trying to battle and foul off, then I got one that I could drive," Bush said.

The Gators added to their lead in the fourth on a sacrifice bunt by Tiffany DeFelice and a double by Kelsey Bruder, who led UF with three RBIs on the day. Alabama responded in the top of the fifth, as Charlotte Morgan, the SEC Player of the Year, took a screwball from Nelson over the scoreboard in left-center field.

The home run was the first allowed by the two-time SEC Pitcher of the Year in 254 innings and nearly 900 at-bats.

"Playing in Division-I college softball, home runs are kind of inevitable, especially to hitters like Charlotte Morgan who can drive the ball well," Nelson said. "I wasn't really thinking about it, but it happens."

The Gators had four players on the SEC All-Tournament Team, including catcher Kristina Hilberth, who was named the tournament's MVP. Bruder, third baseman Corrie Brooks and second baseman Aja Paculba joined Hilberth.

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Nelson said her teammate was "long overdue" for such an award. Walton added that Hilberth, a senior who was left off every other All-SEC team, could not have been more deserving of the award.

"Without Kristina Hilberth, this team doesn't function. She's a leader. I've challenged her all year to be a leader. She leads, she blocks, she throws, she hits," Walton said. "That's a reward right there for a kid who's fought through the most adversity you can face as an athlete - not being very good to being named SEC Tournament MVP your senior season on the No. 1 team in the country."

REGIONALS TO BE ANNOUNCED TONIGHT: The Gators will learn their postseason destiny Sunday night when the NCAA Regionals brackets are revealed.

As the No. 1 team in the nation, UF will likely host a four-team, double-elimination bracket. The rest of the tournament schedule will be announced Sunday at 10 p.m. on ESPNU.

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