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June 5, 2012OKLAHOMA CITY | They played like it was their last game together.
Because they did, they get to play one more time.
The University of Alabama softball players, on the verge of elimination at the NCAA Championship Series, roared back Tuesday evening and then held on to survive a late Oklahoma rally for an 8-6 victory at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.
After dropping the first game the night before, Alabama showed the fire and firepower that had been on display all season, but watched the Sooners come through with fireworks of their own in a hold-onto-your-seat finish.
Now it's UA vs. OU one more time, winner take all tonight for the national championship.
"I'm just excited," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said immediately after the game. "I wish we could play right now. Everybody was locked in and ready to go. I couldn't be more proud of a team."
To even the best-of-three series, Alabama had to solve the riddle of Sooners ace Keilani Ricketts, the collegiate national player of the year and best left-handed power pitcher in the game, who had struck out 12 Crimson Tide batters the night before.
At the same time, UA ace Jackie Traina had to bounce back from being pelted for 11 hits in the series opener just 24 hours before.
The Crimson Tide accomplished both goals, although Traina tired late in a 146-pitch victory.
Alabama's approach against Ricketts was to put balls in play - which led to two crucial Oklahoma errors - and take her deeper into counts. Top-of-the-order hitters Kayla Braud and Jennifer Fenton went a combined 1-for-9, but fouled off a lot of pitches and set the tone for longer at-bats to test Ricketts' concentration.
The difference showed in the top of the first, where Alabama loaded the bases with two outs on a hit batter, a single and a walk. Even though UA didn't capitalize, it established that it could get something going against Ricketts.
"We just wanted to get the momentum going our way," Fenton said. "Even though Kayla Braud and I didn't get on (often), we saw a lot of pitches and we were able to fight. You could just tell on our face that we're not going to go down easy."
The Crimson Tide also took advantage of Ricketts' wildness by drawing five hit-by-pitches to put extra runners on base.
"It wasn't part of the game plan," shortstop Kaila Hunt said, "but I'll take it. I guess she just got a little too tight."
Oklahoma jumped ahead 1-0 on an RBI single from Jessica Shults in the bottom of the first, but Alabama didn't blink, storming back to answer with four runs in the top of the second.
The Crimson Tide took advantage of two errors and two hit batters in the second, scoring a run on a Jennifer Fenton grounder and then loading the bases for Traina, who cleared them with a double to give Alabama a 4-1 lead.
"Jackie was the right person at the right time," Murphy said. "She's pretty hot. I think she has a lot of confidence right now as a hitter."
Alabama loaded the bases in the fourth, with Braud getting hit by a pitch to lead off. Fenton followed with a bunt single, and both runners advanced on a passed ball. Hunt's sacrifice fly scored Braud to make it 5-1.
OU coach Patty Gasso elected at that point to lift her star pitcher to save her for tonight's decisive game. Ricketts (37-8), who threw 111 pitches in a complete-game win on Monday, threw 78 pitches to get 10 outs on Tuesday, hitting five batters, giving up three hits and walking one. She gave up six runs, only two of which were earned.
Alabama drew two walks from reliever Michelle Gasciogne to load the bases for Amanda Locke, who duplicated Traina's earlier bases-clearing double to up Alabama's lead to 8-1.
"That's two hits, six runs, and you never know when that's going to happen," Murphy said of the doubles by Traina and Locke.
Traina cruised through the sixth before Oklahoma's bats came alive in the seventh. The Sooners got triples from Destinee Martinez and Brianna Turang and a three-run home run from Shults in a five-run rally before Triana finally closed the door. Five of OU's nine hits in the game came in their final turn at bat.
"You've got to stop the bleeding," Traina said. "I knew we were going to get out of it. I didn't have a doubt in my mind. I just had to step back, take a breather and, you know, finish it."
Alabama players have been wearing "Finish It" shirts at the Women's College World Series, and post a sign in their dugout with the same words.
Now, they get the chance to finish the 2012 season with a national championship.
"I think that would be the ultimate finishing it," Murphy said.
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or 205-722-0224.