LOS ANGELES — On a perfect evening in sunny Los Angeles, CA, the #12 Ole Miss Rebels continued their historic run by squaring off against #5 UCLA in NCAA Tournament Super Regional play on Thursday.
Only encountering one another twice in program history, the first in 2000 and most recently a 14-inning marathon in 2005, both teams entered coming off of sweeps in their respective NCAA Regionals last weekend and hitting above a .320 clip.
Two hours of warmups filled with dancing and singing cultivated and the pinstripe-clad Rebels locked in, but weren’t able to get anything going at the plate in the top half of the first inning.
Having thrown every inning in postseason play and 12 consecutive complete games, impassioned ace Kaitlin Lee entered the circle for the Rebels.
“They’re battlers.” Lee said. “We know what it takes to win ballgames, we know what it takes to win championships.”
An up and down for both sides brought Rachel Garcia in to the box to start the bottom half of the second. The Bruin pitcher drove her hips and hit her seventh home run of the year to deep center, taking a one-run lead that carried to the third.
After Ole Miss went down quickly in the top half, the UCLA offense found a spark again. A fly ball to left field, a hit by pitch, and a fumbled sacrifice bunt left ducks on the pond with four-hitter Madeline Jelenicki batting. Delaney Spaulding scored on a deep fly ball to center that put the Bruins up 2-0 with two runners still in scoring position. Gabrielle Maurice’s rolling single and a throwing error scored the Bruins third and fourth runs of the game. UCLA’s scoring run and the third inning ended with a routine fly out back to the pitcher.
Having previously retired nine batters in a row, UCLA’s Garcia walked Brittany Finney, Kaylee Horton and Courtney Syrett to load the bases for the Rebels. Ole Miss was unable to capitalize.
The Bruin offense ended the fourth inning on three straight ground outs and neither team was able to put a run on the board in the fifth.
“I felt like we were trying to find our way through in the first four innings,” Coach Mike Smith said. “I thought there was a little bit of nerves, but once we found our legs we were back to playing Ole Miss softball.”
The drought ended in the top of the sixth when Finney slapped a momentum-swinging dinger to left center, scoring the base runner Strother and putting the Rebels within two. Ashton Lampton and Horton dug out two quick base hits and were followed by a McKinney walk that loaded the bases for pinch hitter Alyssa Gonzalez. As a passed ball bounced to the backstop, pinch runner Alex Schneider scrambled from third and scored. Feeling the mojo from the electric Rebel faithful, California native Gonzalez roped a liner over the shortstop and cleared the bases to make it 5-4 Rebels.
“Coach has given me so many opportunities throughout the year,” Gonzalez said. “I asked myself what I had to lose, I put myself in a mindset where I couldn’t fail.”
The Rebels were able to load the bases once more, but left them stranded and brought the Bruins to bat.
Lee came out of the dugout feeling herself. Forcing three batted balls, the Rebel defense held strong and retired the Bruins in order, highlighted by a graceful foul territory catch from Cox in left field.
Unable to bring in an insurance run in the top of the seventh, Ole Miss took the field just three outs away from victory in the first game of the Super Regional.
Having reached on a single, Spaulding advanced to third base on a batted ball and a pitch that got away from Lee. Just one strike from an Ole Miss victory, Spaulding scored on a wild pitch to tie the game and send it to extra innings.
“It happens, it’s a game,” Smith said. “The fans are going to remember, but the good thing is the game forgets.”
Two uneventful innings brought Syrett to the plate in the top of the tenth where she reached on a single up the gap. McKinney then laid down a bodacious bunt that was fumbled by the third baseman and put two runners on for Ole Miss. The two moved into scoring position on a wild pitch, and Gonzalez pulverized a near home run to give the Rebels a 7-5 lead going in to the bottom half.
After a Tautalafua single, Jelenicki grounded in to a 4-6-3 double play. Garcia, who hit a home run earlier in the game, found her bat again and singled. Maurice did the same, and saw two runners on base with two outs for the Bruins. CF Bubba Nickels came to bat with the game on the line and hit a moonshot double to right that tied the game.
A quick third out and to the 11th it went.
After retiring the side, the Bruins found game-winning life at the plate. With a runner on first and second base, Jelenicki hit a single down the right field line that scored the eighth and game-winning run for the Bruins.
“Even though we lost, it’s a great day to be a Rebel” Smith said. “It’s all or nothing tomorrow. The girls are going to get some sleep, get some food in them and we’re going to come out ready to play.”
The Rebels and Bruins will square off in game two of the Super Regional tomorrow at 6pm CST.