HOOVER, Ala. (AP) — The Arkansas Razorbacks polished off their dominant run through the Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament. Now, they can turn their attention to even bigger prizes.
Jalen Battles and Cullen Smith homered to help Arkansas win its first SEC Tournament title with a 7-2 victory over Tennessee on Sunday.
The Razorbacks (46-12) would have been the likely No. 1 overall national seed when the NCAA regional field is announced on Monday win or lose that game.
But they finally broke through in the SEC after losing on all four previous trips to the tournament championship game. This time they took over after a slow start against the second-seeded Volunteers (45-16).
Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn gathered the team before the game to make sure the players knew “that the coaches were 100% in to do whatever we needed to win.”
“It’s big for the school,” Van Horn said. “The trophies are going to be there after we’re all gone, and they’re going to talk about it one day.”
Arkansas’s Kevin Kopps, the SEC pitcher of the year, gave up a homer to start his outing but went the final three innings for his second save of the week and 10th of the season.
“If there’s ever a situation for your team to quit, it’s with the (potential) Golden Spikes winner on the mound and a big lead,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said.
Instead, he said, his players “were still wrapped up emotionally in the game.”
Arkansas is only the third team since the SEC expanded in 2012 to win both the regular season and tournament championships. The Razorbacks went 4-0 in Hoover.
LSU pulled the title double in 2017 and Vanderbilt in 2019 en route to the College World Series title.
The Razorbacks took over in the middle innings and beyond. Battles had a solo homer in the seventh and Smith added a two-run shot in the eighth.
That was more than enough for Kopps, who struck out three and scattered four hits. Ryan Costeiu (8-2) got the win with 1-1/3 scoreless innings of relief.
Battles went 3 for 4 with two RBIs and scored twice, earning tournament MVP honors. He said he was mad after Tennessee pitcher Kirby Connell tried to “quick pitch” him.
“He hung a breaking ball and I took my anger out on it,” Battles said.
It was the first time since 1995 Tennessee had played in the championship game. In fact the Volunteers hadn’t won a tournament game since 2007, but bounced back from a loss to Alabama in the opener.
The Vols’ three previous tournament titles had come consecutively from 1993-95 when the East Division and West Division had separate tournaments.
Down 1-0, Arkansas finally got to Tennessee starter Will Heflin (2-3) in the fifth, chasing him with three runs in his second start of the week. Battles and Zack Gregory each had RBI singles and Matt Goodheart drove in the third run with a sacrifice fly.
Pete Derkay greeted Kopps with a leadoff homer in the bottom half of the seventh for the Volunteers. They weren’t able to add onto that against Kopps.
The Vols had pitched two straight shutouts heading into Sunday, winning 11-0 over Alabama and 4-0 against Florida.
Jake Rucker and Drew Gilbert each had two hits for Tennessee, which turned its attention to the NCAA regional.
Vitello was hoping his players would have regrouped emotionally from the loss by somewhere around Chattanooga on the four-hour ride home.
“I think it’ll take a bus ride for our guys to soak up the whole deal,” he said.
And the Razorbacks finally left the SEC tournament with a title to celebrate. The team gave Van Horn the game ball after he was finally able to bring home the title.
“It’s something that we’ve never done here at Arkansas,” Smith said. “The team kind of (came) together and said we wanted to do this for DVH. He might not say it but he secretly wants to win this thing every single year he’s here. I’m just glad we won it, dude.”
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