Kentucky's brand-new John Cropp Stadium became a Field of Dreams for freshman third baseman Nikki Sagermann Friday night.
Hollywood writers might balk at the idea of a player making a game-saving catch, then delivering a walk-off hit to win an NCAA Tournament game. One in the top of the eighth inning. The other in the bottom. Too hokey? Too implausible?
Yet, that's what Sagermann did to lead UK to a 2-1 extra-inning victory over Marshall in a first-round game in the Lexington Regional.
"That was crazy," Sagermann said. "Lot of emotion going on. I was happy. Still am."
Sagermann's defense and offense helped advance Kentucky to a second-round game against Virginia Tech Saturday. UK tied a program record by winning its seventh extra-inning game this season (also done in 2002).
Marshall, which plays Notre Dame in the losers' bracket Saturday, also lost to Kentucky in walk-off fashion during the regular season. Both times, ace Andi Williamson was the hard-luck losing pitcher.
"It was a great experience and a great opportunity," a teary-eyed Williamson said afterward. "We're not here to play. We're here to win. We have to forget about tonight's game and move on to tomorrow."
Williamson, whose record fell to 32-17, nearly got a lead to protect in the top of the eighth. After the Herd loaded the bases with two out, shortstop Alexandra Bayne hit a soft line drive that seemed to have a chance to float by Sagermann.
But she backhanded the ball after taking a step toward the line.
"It wasn't hit solid," Sagermann said in downplaying the catch. "The batter was jammed."
This led UK Coach Rachel Lawson to interject a comment. "It was a good catch," she said. "She's so used to me yelling at her, she doesn't know what to say."Lawson noted how she wasn't comfortable playing Sagermann in the field earlier this season. "She drove me crazy at third base," the UK coach said.
Sagermann, a native of Buford, Ga., drew Kentucky's recruiting interest because of her hitting. As Lawson put it, she was an "RBI girl."
Lawson recalled imploring Sagermann to become a better defender, a priority against a Marshall small-ball attack that emphasized bunting, slap-hitting and speed."You've got to make that play," Lawson said she'd tell Sagermann. "She wasn't making any of them."
To which, Sagermann said, "I made some."
Sagermann put on her hitting shoes in the bottom of the inning. After catcher Griffin Joiner opened the inning with a double that short-hopped the center-field wall, two walks brought Sagermann to the plate.
Her sharp single to center ended a taut, well-played two-hour competition.
"I'm just living the dream," Sagermann said before adding, "I'm still living it. I have three more years of it."
After his team beat Notre Dame 4-3 in the night's first game, Virginia Tech Coach Scot Thomas predicted hard-fought games throughout the Lexington Regional.
"Any of these teams could win," he said. "You can't count Marshall out even though they are a four-seed. ... You are going to see some great games this weekend, and I expect all of them to be tight."
Kentucky (39-18) and Marshall (35-21) made Thomas look like a prophet.
With former star quarterback Chad Pennington among the some 800 Marshall fans in attendance, the Herd used its signature small-ball offense to take a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning. Leadoff hitter Kaelynn Greene began the inning with a bunt single. She advanced to second on Ashley Gue's sacrifice. Shaelynn Braxton's two-out single up the middle plated the game's first run.
Kentucky tied it in the fifth. Sylver Samuel led off the inning with a slap hit off the third baseman's glove. She successfully stole second as the catcher's throw hit Williamson on the arm. That was reminiscent of UK's rally against Marshall in the regular season when the catcher's throw on a steal attempt hit Williamson in the head.
Kara Dill, who missed most of the last two months because of a broken bone in a hand, singled to right to drive in Samuel.
It stayed tied until fate gave Sagermann two chances to be a heroine. When asked how she'd celebrate, she seemed caught off guard.
"I usually hang out with my family and eat," she said. "I'm being honest."
Marshall 000 100 00—1 6 0
Kentucky 000 010 01—2 10 1
Williamson and Lucas. Nunley and Joiner. W— Nunley (25-8). L—Williamson (32-17).
Virginia Tech 000 130 0 -- 4 6 1
Notre Dame 000 300 0 -- 3 10 2
Harrell, Heinz (4) and C. Liddle. Winter and Buntin. HR -- Banks (Va Tech). WP -- Heinz (16-7). LP -- Winter (29-11)
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com
When: Through Sunday
Where: UK's John Cropp Stadium
Tickets: All-tournament passes: $30 reserved, $20 general admission; Single-session passes: $15 reserved, $10 general admission adults, $8 youth, seniors
TV: All games on ESPN3 only
Game 1: Virginia Tech 4, Notre Dame 3
Game 2: Kentucky 2 vs. Marshall 1 (8)
Game 3: Virginia Tech vs. Kentucky, 1 p.m.
Game 4: Notre Dame vs. Marshall, 3:30 p.m.
Game 5: Loser Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 6 p.m.
Game 6: Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 5, 1 p.m.
Game 7: If necessary, 3:30 p.m.