OKLAHOMA CITY — Staring elimination in the face, the Oklahoma Sooners dug deep.
Falling behind early in a loser-go-home matchup on Saturday evening, the No. 1-seeded Oklahoma Sooners come back to batter the 2-seeded UCLA Bruins 10-3 at USA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.
In a game featuring two USA Softball Player of the Year finalists in UCLA’s Rachel Garcia and OU’s Jocelyn Alo, a pair of players who were excluded in Thursday’s shocking opener against James Madison stole the show for the Sooners.
Sophomore left fielder Mackenzie Donihoo built off her 3-for-3 performance earlier on Saturday against the Georgia Bulldogs, tacking on another pair of home runs against the Bruins to bring her grand total on Saturday to three.
“She's my roommate and I'm so proud of her and all the work she's put in,” OU catcher Kinzie Hansen said after the game. “You don't see a lot of girls that size hitting monster bombs three times a day.
“So my heart is super proud of her and I'm just so happy for her.”
Giselle Juarez, after not pitching a single inning in OU’s sweep of the 16-seeded Washington Huskies in last weekend’s Super Regional, entered the game in relief of Nicole May to quiet the UCLA bats.
But it was UCLA’s Garcia who made the game’s first impression, but not from the pitching circle.
Uncorking a three-run bomb off May, Garcia put UCLA up 3-0 in the top of the third.
With the Bruins making great contact off of May, Oklahoma head coach Patty Gasso turned to Juarez to steady the game in the third. Working around a pair of base runners, Juarez struck out a pair of UCLA batters to give the Sooners a bit of hope.
“I just wanted to have Nicole May's back. I went out there and that's what I told her is "I'm going to have your back." And I think the team was just going to have her back,” Juarez said after the game. “I took it one pitch at a time. My team came back and answered.”
In five innings of relief work, Juarez shut out UCLA. Striking out four batters and only allowing three hits, Oklahoma’s “super senior” looked like her 2019 self for maybe the first time since rehabbing a biceps surgery this past offseason.
“You could feel UCLA — they are a great-hitting team all the way through. You could feel that they were squaring the ball really well early in the game. So we needed some kind of relief, some kind of momentum just in the way of a stop, and I don't know, it just brought a little bit of hope, like we are still in the game,” Gasso said of the stability Juarez brought to the game. “Giselle coming in and getting us back in the dugout really changed the whole dynamic, momentum, the approach that the team had going forward.”
In the bottom of the third, Oklahoma’s offense responded.
Already with an out, Garcia hit right fielder Nicole Mendes. Garcia then a struck out Tiare Jennings, bringing Alo to the plate with two outs.
Alo turned on Garcia’s second offering and blasted the ball off the wall, driving in Mendes with her first career triple.
In the ensuing at-bat, Garcia was unable to handle Kinzie Hansen’s hard-hit ball back up the middle, and Alo crossed the plate to cut the UCLA lead to 3-2.
Jennings lived up to her Freshman of the Year plaudits an inning later, giving Oklahoma their first lead of the night off a two-RBI double.
“I felt really good going into this game that they were locked in and ready, and they definitely put on a battle face,” Gasso said. “They don't want to go home. They don't want to end their season.
“The attitude is like we didn't get this far just to get this far.”
Donihoo gave OU some insurance in the top of the fifth with her first bomb of the night, a towering solo-home run to center field.
Hansen busted the game with a two-run double in the bottom of the sixth to kickstart a rally, and Donihoo added the perfect ending to her day, smashing a two-run home run to extend the lead to 10-3.
Hansen finished 2-for-3 with 3 RBIs, and Donihoo ended the day with a 2-for-4 performance, driving in three RBIs off her pair of blasts.
Though they survived Elimination Saturday, the road back for Oklahoma is still a long one.
They will have to beat breakout star pitcher Odicci Alexander and her James Madison Dukes twice on Sunday if they are to advance to Monday’s Championship Series.
Gasso said she hopes the momentum the Sooners found today against the Bulldogs and the Bruins will roll right into Sunday’s battle with the Dukes.
“It was such a great team effort tonight,” she said. “I think it will build — that momentum will create itself again tomorrow. That's what I hope for.”
The Sooners will get another shot at the Dukes at noon Sunday at Hall of Fame Stadium, and the contest will be broadcast on ESPN. Should the Sooners win, they’ll meet James Madison again at 6 p.m. Sunday with the winner earning a spot to play for a National Championship.