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June 7, 2012

Alabama beats Oklahoma for title

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. | The University of Alabama softball team needed a break Wednesday night.

It came from the skies.

The Oklahoma Sooners were up three runs and looking like they were headed to a runaway victory in the decisive game of the Women's College World Series best-of-three national championship series at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.

Then, in the bottom of the fourth inning, came the rain. It was a light rain, more of a mist, but it caused Oklahoma to lose its grip. And its composure.

Alabama scored four runs in that rain-delayed inning and took over the game, pulling away for a 5-4 victory to claim the national championship.

Alabama finished off a 60-8 season by winning 13 of its last 14 games, with the only defeat coming in the first game of the title series. Oklahoma finished 54-10.

Shortstop Kaila Hunt got things started for Alabama in that crucial inning, hitting a leadoff single.

She moved to second, and then to third, on wild pitches as Oklahoma ace Keilani Ricketts began to lose control as the ball began to get slick.

With two outs, catcher Kendall Dawson drew a walk, and Hunt scored on another wild pitch.

That cut the Oklahoma lead to 3-1, and brought OU coach Patty Gasso out to complain about the rain. After consulting, the umpires headed off the field. The officials sent the teams to their dugouts in what appeared to be the start of a rain delay, but no one called for the tarp to cover the infield.

Alabama players decided to dance and play in the rain, as if to make a point that nobody was going to melt, as the umps walked off the field.

The delay, however, turned out to be more of a pause, as NCAA Director of Championships Sharon Cessna led the umps right back out and the game resumed after a 13-minute cessation.

When it resumed, Alabama was ready and Oklahoma couldn't find its composure.

Amanda Locke beat out an infield single deep to the hole at shortstop, driving in Dawson to cut the OU lead to 3-2.

Third baseman Courtney Conley followed by ripping a double over the center fielder's head, bringing home Locke to tie the game, 3-3.

Then the Sooners really fell apart, with Jazlyn Lunceford reaching on an error on a harmless grounder to short and Conley scoring all the way from second to put Alabama ahead 4-3.

Alabama added an insurance run in the bottom of the fifth. Senior outfielder Jennifer Fenton beat out an infield single, moved to second on a passed ball and third on a groundout, then scored on Jackie Traina's RBI single to right field for a 5-3 Alabama lead.

Ricketts, like Traina a power hitter when she isn't pitching, flexed that power to start off the second inning. She smashed a leadoff home run to right field to give OU a 1-0 lead.

When Alabama committed an error immediately after the home run, it appeared as if the Crimson Tide was on the verge of falling apart on the big stage. Traina, however, calmly got the next three outs on three quick pop-ups to settle things down.

Oklahoma's power game came through again in the third, when freshman Lauren Chamberlain, who had been having a tough time against Alabama in the series, blasted her 29th home run of the season way up into the stands in left field. The two-run shot put Oklahoma ahead 3-0.

Chamberlain gave Oklahoma a score in the top of the seventh with a two-out solo home run to cut the Alabama lead to 5-4.

The most intriguing facet of the third and final game of the series was how each team would fare against the other's dominant pitcher.

Oklahoma's Ricketts struck out 12 Alabama batters in a dominant victory in the opening game, while the Sooners had their way with Alabama's Traina. Just one night later, UA batters rattled Ricketts by taking her deep in counts and crowding the plate to draw a World Series-record five hit-by-pitches. Ricketts recorded just 10 outs before Oklahoma lifted her, while Traina handled OU's powerful lineup for six innings before she began to tire, with the Sooners staging a five-run rally to cut into Alabama's big lead.

Each ace got off to a good start in the first inning Wednesday. Traina got a groundout, a strikeout and a fly ball for an easy 1-2-3. Ricketts topped that by striking out the first three Alabama batters.

Traina, however, settled down to limit Oklahoma to five total hits to finish 42-3 on the season. Ricketts allowed seven hits and finished 37-9.

The start of the game was delayed nearly three hours by daylong rains in the area, with the 7 p.m. scheduled start time passing as the precipitation continued. It finally slacked off after 8 o'clock, and game officials set 9:55 p.m. for first pitch.

Alabama players danced and joked in their locker room until they were cleared to take batting practice on a side field at the Amateur Softball Association complex. They were the first team on the main field to begin throwing drills about 40 minutes before start time.

The combination of the weather and the hometown Oklahoma City Thunder's home game against the San Antonio Spurs in the National Basketball Association playoffs served to cut into OU's home-crowd advantage. Where more than 8,000 fans, the vast majority rooting for the Sooners, packed the stadium on the first two nights of the national championship series, far less than half that number were on hand to see the finale. When Oklahoma players arrived at the field around 10 minutes after Alabama, the cheers were far quieter than they had been during the first two games.

At the World Series, Alabama topped Southeastern Conference rival Tennessee, then beat defending national champion Arizona State and top-seeded California to play its way into the national title showdown with Oklahoma, the Big 12 champion.

Reach Tommy Deas at tommy@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0224.


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