HOOVER, Ala. — For all the emotion spent in Saturday's 2-1 loss to Mississippi State, Kentucky's baseball team expects to cash in Sunday on a season of success.
Although ousted from the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, the Wildcats expect to be among the 16 NCAA regional hosts that will be named Sunday.
"I would think so, sure," Coach Gary Henderson said. "I would certainly think that the four-seed in the SEC that's won 43 games, 20 of them against SEC competition, deserves a spot."
Still, Saturday's loss wasn't easy to swallow.
"You've got to give a lot of credit to both pitching staffs, especially John's group," Henderson said, referring to MSU and former UK coach John Cohen. Bulldogs pitching coach "Butch Thompson obviously is doing a tremendous job over there. Great game for the fans. Extremely disappointed that I'm not playing tomorrow."
His voice breaking with emotion, Henderson paused before adding "I'm really proud of our guys. They're tough. They showed up. Clearly a rough day for us offensively but it's just that type of game, 2-1, and when your team leaves nine guys on base; I'm just really proud of our kids and really disappointed we're not playing tomorrow."
State will face Vanderbilt in the finals on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern.
With temperatures well into the 90s, each team left nine on base.
J.T. Riddle had three of UK's nine hits, including a second-inning home run to tie the game at 1.
Thomas McCarthy and Zac Zellers had two hits each.
MSU's Adam Frazier extended his hitting streak to 11 games, getting two to raise his tournament-leading total to 11.
The teams met for the fifth time in 10 days.
The Bulldogs swept UK in the final three games of the regular season, but the Cats came back with a 5-1 tournament victory Thursday.
State opened Saturday's scoring in the second.
Demarcus Henderson led off with a single.
Then came the first of a remarkable 5-for-5 effort by Bulldogs bunting runners along, this one by Mitch Slauter.
Wes Rea's single up the middle scored Henderson.
Riddle tied it by crashing a 1-1 Luis Pollorena pitch over the right-field wall in the bottom of the second.
"He left a curveball up," Riddle said. "I sat on it, put a good swing on it."
Frazier led off the MSU third with a single.
He moved around on another bunt, a fly ball and Trey Porter's single, which fell just in front of diving center fielder Austin Cousino.
The game of inches continued in the UK third.
Cousino led off with a walk, and might have scored if McCarthy's drive down the right-field line hadn't gone foul by inches.
Cousino stole second base, but was out when he was unable to dodge McCarthy's hard-hit ball to shortstop.
The Cats would strand runners in scoring position six times.
UK lefty Corey Littrell (8-2), whose only other loss came a week earlier at Starkville, kept the Cats close.
Taylor Rogers, who Henderson had said earlier would be his starter if the Cats reached the finals, took over in the seventh.
"About the fourth inning, it became pretty clear it was going to be a tight, low-scoring game," Henderson said. "I told (Rogers) before the game there was a very small chance, but there was a chance, and in the fourth inning I said 'start getting your mind set up to pitch an inning or two,'"
Rogers worked 22⁄3 innings of two-hit ball. Trevor Gott stranded a runner at third for MSU's last out.
Aside from Riddle's homer, the only UK runner to reach third base was Lucas Witt.
He led off the ninth and reached on a throwing error by third baseman Sam Frost.
Zellers executed the Cats' only sacrifice bunt, and Witt took third on a groundout.
Jonathan Holder, the last of four pitchers used by Cohen, got his ninth save by getting Cousino to pop out.
Winning pitcher Nick Routt (3-5) came in with two outs and two on in the fifth, He got A.J. Reed looking at a full-count third strike.
"That 3-2 breaking ball he threw for a punchout, that was huge," Cohen said of Routt, who worked 31⁄3 innings. "To me that was the defining moment in the game. He really slammed the door there."
Seeded fourth in the tournament and ranked No. 11 in the nation by Baseball America, Kentucky (43-15) remains a win shy of the school record set in 2006 and tied in 2008.
Seventh-seeded State (38-22), ranked No. 21 by Collegiate Baseball, will be shooting for its seventh SEC tourney title Sunday, and first since 2005.
As for UK, Cohen endorsed his former team and Henderson as NCAA hosts: "The way he's put it together at Kentucky, there's no doubt in my mind that they should probably be hosting a regional. Although we'd love it if our club could get right in that mix."
Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com