Oklahoma softball coach Patty Gasso called Sunday afternoon's Women's College World Series contest between her Sooners and Arizona State one of the toughest games of her career.
Both pitchers labored at times. Both lineups battled. Even the weather — particularly the sun and humidity — played a role on defensive plays.
But a third inning that featured timely hits — and a couple fortuitous bounces — proved to be the difference for the No. 4 Sooners, who captured a 5-3 victory over the defending national champions at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium to advance to the best-of-3 title series against Alabama that begins at 7 p.m. Monday.
“That was one game that I'll always remember,” Gasso said. “It was just a fight until the very end. That's Arizona State. They won't quit. They're defending national champions.
“For us, the way we've gone through this tournament, we've played the best. And I like it that way, because we've earned the right to be here.”
Gasso is right. The Sooners (53-8), who are 8-0 in the postseason so far, had to go through both the defending champions and the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament (Cal) to reach the championship series. It's OU's first appearance in the tournament final since it won the national championship in 2000.
Now, the No. 2 Crimson Tide awaits.
“(OU's) got that experience,” said Arizona State coach Clint Myers, whose squad beat OU in the WCWS a year ago. “They didn't like how it ended last year. They played with great enthusiasm. Patty does a great job as far as getting her kids ready.
“It's experience, they recruit hard, and when we play, it's a battle. It's two great pitchers with great teams behind them.”
Trailing 2-1 in the third, the Sooners' staged a four-run scoring flurry against ASU starter Dallas Escobedo with two outs.
Keilani Ricketts sent an RBI bloop single into right to tie the game. Then Jessica Shults sent a double the same way — a ball that was just out of reach of a diving Alix Johnson — to score Destinee Martinez and Ricketts. A pop-up that dropped in front of ASU third baseman Haley Steele, who appeared to have lost the ball in the sun, allowed Shults to score and give the Sooners a 5-2 lead.
“We just stay calm and know things are going to happen for us and they started to come together that inning, and it was just contagious,” Shults said.
ASU forced Ricketts, who came into the game on a streak of 40 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run, to work harder than any team has so far in the postseason. The Sun Devils tallied eight hits and four walks and made the Sooner lefty throw 156 pitches. And they grabbed a 2-0 lead when Annie Lockwood sent a two-run double to the gap in right-center in the first inning.
But Ricketts (36-7) still fanned 13 batters, including key back-to-back strikeouts to end the sixth against ASU stars Katelyn Boyd and Alix Johnson when both batters represented the tying run.
“Honesty, I don't remember (that sixth-inning sequence),” Ricketts said. “All I remember is every inning was a battle. One through nine, those hitters were just giving me a battle. They were making me work.”
Said Lockwood: “We had a lot of 3-2 counts. We made her work really hard. We were in her head, I feel like, the whole game. We started early, and we kept it going the whole time.”
In Alabama (58-7), the Sooners will face a squad that has blasted 97 home runs this season, including three in its victory against Cal to reach the championship series. The Crimson Tide also boasts its own dominant ace in Jackie Traina (40-2).
Alabama coach Pat Murphy already anticipated a highly competitive series minutes after his team's victory over Cal on Sunday.
“They have power up and down the lineup,” Murphy said of OU. “They have good speed. They have some really good lefties and some powerful righties.
“I had Chamberlain in Bogata with Team USA (the junior national team), and I know what she can do. I had Destinee Martinez on that team; I know what she can do. And pitching, too. Ricketts and Traina will be a heck of a combination.”
And Gasso is confident her squad can finish the job.
“Just love the tenacity of this team,” Gasso said. “To find a way to play for a national championship has been our ultimate dream and our ultimate goal, and to know that there is a chance for reality is unbelievable.
“The hard work and effort that they put in, there's not a team that deserves it more than my Sooners.”