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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. &ndash At the Southeastern Conference Tournament, the Gators were put in a situation they have rarely faced: having to come from behind early in the game.

After posting a shutout in its 3-0 first-round win against Auburn on Thursday, UF allowed Tennessee to put up 3 quick runs on two hits and a costly error by shortstop Megan Bush on the first at-bat of Friday's game.

But the Gators relied on their bats to put them back in the game, and the top of the lineup responded. Second baseman Aja Paculba ripped a double to center, moved to third on a groundout by Kristina Hilberth and scored on Ali Gardiner's 2-run homer to left field.

"We learned something about our team tonight. No matter what the score is, we can come back from it," UF coach Tim Walton said after defeating the Volunteers. "We fought well. I think Aja actually cracked a smile and fist-pumped for the first time in her career. I really took it as a positive. We got fired up and answered."

By the end of the inning, the Gators were up 4-3, and they never looked back. UF scored 4 more runs in the second on back-to-back-to-back home runs and added 1 in each of the final three innings before mercy-ruling Tennessee 11-3.

"That's just what our team is like. They scored 3, and we just wanted to answer back so they know they can't hang around with us," left fielder Francesca Enea said. "It's what we're going to do. We're going to score runs and give our pitchers as much support as possible. That's the type of team we are."

UF found itself in a similar situation the next day in Saturday's tournament championship game against Alabama. The Crimson Tide scored 2 runs in the first, loading the bases on a single and two walks by Stacey Nelson.

Nelson hit Alabama catcher Ashley Holcombe to bring in the first run of the game. Charlotte Morgan crossed the plate for the Tide on a wild pitch by Nelson to put the Gators in a 2-0 hole.

"Alabama did a good job capitalizing on a few breaks for them," Hilberth said. "We just need to do a better job of shutting our opponents down in the first inning."

The Gators once again bounced back and regained the lead thanks to a grand slam by Bush, putting them ahead 5-2. Although Alabama rallied late, UF held on to secure the victory.

Walton praised his team's ability to come back from an early deficit two days in a row after not facing such a challenge nearly all season. He attributed the team's composure to its 6 a.m. workouts on "Gator Mountain," referring to the stadium steps the team runs in the fall.

"You think you're done, then you do another one. Then you do another one and another one. It's where you get composure, where you get your guts from," he said. "That builds a lot more character than most people think."

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