March 6, 2014 11:34:13 PM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State took a large amount of confidence from playing No. 12 Baylor to an extra-inning defeat last weekend.
Now, the Bulldogs want to take that next step -- defeating an elite opponent.
That opportunity presents itself this weekend when No. 8 Kentucky comes to Starkville for a three-game series.
The opening Southeastern Conference series for both teams starts at 6 tonight at the MSU Softball Field.
"We saw how close we were to beating a really great team," MSU senior pitcher Alison Owen said. "I think what we learned is that you have to take advantage of every opportunity that you get.
"One pitch or one at-bat can be the difference in the game."
MSU has gained some momentum during its 21-game non-conference start.
At 19-2 overall, MSU is off to the best start in program history. A season-opening 15-game win streak was stopped by Baylor 1-0 in eight innings last Friday in Gulfport.
The Bulldogs recovered nicely to win their final four games at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Classic.
The momentum was short-lived as MSU lost to UAB 5-3 at home Tuesday night.
"We are ready to get conference play started," MSU head coach Vann Stuedeman said. "I think we learned a lot about this team through the first month of the season.
"We know we have some good players but we also know that we have to keep working the process. It was a good weekend last weekend and I think we can take a lot from that."
Stuedeman has led MSU to regional appearances in each of her first two seasons.
In 2012, MSU's late-season surge to the postseason was kick-started by a three-game sweep over a nationally-ranked Kentucky squad during Super Bulldog Weekend.
Kentucky returned the favor by winning all three games last season.
"The team has set some high goals for the season," Owen said. "We know that the best way we can achieve those goals is by winning conference series.
"Last year, we would win a game in most series and have a chance to win another game. We just have to learn how to take care of those chances."
Through its fast start, MSU actually gained some votes and has inched toward the national rankings.
The Bulldogs can certainly strengthen those claims by beating Kentucky and No. 18 Georgia next weekend in Athens.
"I think that was a little disappointment when we were picked 12th in the preseason," Owen said. "Coach (Tyler) Bratton reminded us that you don't win games on paper.
"Now it is our time to go out there and prove that we are better than that."
If MSU is to succeed, it will most likely start in the circle.
Heading into this weekend's series, MSU owns the SEC's lowest team earned-run average (0.64) and batting average against (.132) while also having the league's most strikeouts (181) and fewest hits allowed (64).
The Bulldogs are tied for the league lead in fewest walks surrendered with 24.
Kentucky has won four straight since suffering back-to-back losses to Kent State and Michigan in the Florida Atlantic Invitational.
Baylor is the lone ranked opponent for MSU so far this season. That will quickly change as 18 of MSU's 24 league games are against ranked foes.
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter