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June 5, 2012

HURT: UA needs to finish it

The University of Alabama softball team conquered one mountain on Tuesday night in Oklahoma City.

Now the Crimson Tide must conquer the same one - towering Oklahoma pitcher Keilani Ricketts - again. More significantly, it must conquer an even greater mountain in its own collective team mind, perhaps by not thinking about it all.

The Crimson Tide will face Oklahoma in a third and decisive game to settle the NCAA softball team, an incredible opportunity for this group of players. But for those who have followed the longer narrative of Alabama softball - good team after good team after good team stopped short by superior opposition or, on occasion, its own tentative play. It was a curious combination of excellence and disappointment, compounded by the fact that Alabama, spoiled by football success, has more of a national-championship-or-bust mentality than some schools.

Those ghosts were rattling around ASA Hall of Fame Stadium on Monday night. Alabama looked tentative at the plate against Ricketts and didn't get a great starting performance out of pitcher Jackie Traina, although to her credit, she did ultimately battle enough to keep the game at 4-1 rather than a psyche-bruising 8-1 or 9-1, which could have happened.

Given the weight of so much history, and the prowess of Ricketts on the mound, it would have been easy for Alabama to give a curtsey and exit the stage. The Oklahoma fans in attendance clearly expected a Sooner coronation on Tuesday night, and perhaps some Alabama fans did as well.

In the top of the first inning, though, Alabama didn't act intimidated by Ricketts. Instead, UA loaded the bases - but failed to score. Oklahoma then scratched a run across against Traina in the bottom of the inning, and the entire season rested on the Crimson Tide's psychological reaction to that inning.

But Alabama didn't crumble. Instead, it got angry. Alabama put Ricketts on the ropes. Yes, some shaky Oklahoma defense helped, but one key to that was that Alabama put the ball in play instead of striking out. And when the chance to land a haymaker came, Traina delivered it with all five knuckles, clearing the loaded bases and completing reversing the mood in the stadium, and on both benches. Alabama posted four runs in the second inning, added four more in the fourth, chased Ricketts from the game and had momentum squarely in its corner. It didn't swing back in Oklahoma's favor until a five-run seventh inning caused a little nervousness and a lot of speculation abut who carries the momentum into tonight's contest.

Forcing a final game is a far cry from winning a championship. Ricketts could right herself and be as imposing as she was on Monday. A million things could happens, a million mini-dramas will play out, and Alabama will either fall short once again - or finally reach the mountaintop.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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