Oklahoma defends softball title with 5-4 win over Florida

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Even as defending champions, it seemed for most of the season that Oklahoma was unlikely to repeat.

The Sooners earned just a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They lost their NCAA opener to North Dakota State before rallying, then had to go to Auburn and win a super regional.

Even when they recovered at the Women’s College World Series and reached the championship round, they faced No. 1 seed Florida and its two All-American pitchers.

In the end, Oklahoma found a way, including a 17-inning win in Game 1. On Tuesday night, Shay Knighten hit a three-run double in the second inning, and the Sooners defeated Florida 5-4 to win it all again.

The Sooners (61-9) took both games from Florida in the best-of-three series to earn their third NCAA title in five years.

“I still cannot believe that this happened, with where we started and where we finished,” Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said.

“There’s so many stories. The journey was unbelievable. I think if you looked at us in February and March, even parts of April, you would never imagine us sitting here right now with trophies in front of us.”

Knighten, who hit a three-run homer in the 17th inning on Monday, was selected the World Series’ Most Outstanding Player.

Oklahoma freshman Mariah Lopez (18-1) got the win in relief of Paige Parker. Though Parker has an 8-0 career World Series record, she struggled on Tuesday and lasted just 1 2-3 innings. She threw 108 pitches in the 5½-hour game on Monday night.

“I think Paige probably could tell you she didn’t have her best stuff, but she is the reason why we’re sitting here right now, and she knows that. I know she knows that,” Gasso said.

“To be able to give Mariah (Lopez) the ball, a freshman who’s been waiting patiently, and for her to step up and do what we asked her to do in that setting was another reason why we’re sitting here with a trophy. It’s another reason why we’re here, period.”

Paige Lowary stepped in and threw two innings of perfect relief for her nation-leading 11th save. With a one-run lead, she retired Florida’s Nos. 2-4 hitters in order in the seventh. On Monday night, ESPN announcers said one of her pitches reached 75 mph on the radar gun.

“Paige Lowary came in, and she was hot,” Gasso said. “She was ready. I don’t know how hard she was throwing, but it looked like 100 miles an hour. The adrenaline was there and she was hitting her spots just so confident.”

Florida (58-10) did not allow an earned run in three games to reach the championship series, but the Sooners were able to break through against what statistically was the nation’s best pitching staff.

Florida pitcher Kelly Barnhill, USA Softball’s National Collegiate Player of the Year, did not play Tuesday. Florida coach Tim Walton went with No. 3 pitcher Alesia Ocasio (8-2), and she got the loss. Delaney Gourley allowed the double to Knighten in relief.

“It just wasn’t our tournament,” Walton said. “You look at the statistics, it’s eerie how close the games were statistically. So I think that you’ve got two evenly matched teams. One just found a way to hit the ball over the fence more than we did, and give them a lot of credit.”

Oklahoma’s Nicole Mendes homered on Ocasio’s third pitch of the game to give the Sooners a 1-0 lead. Sophia Reynoso responded with a solo shot for Florida in the second.

With the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the second, Ocasio singled to knock in Justine McLean, then Kayli Kvistad walked with the bases loaded to score Amanda Lorenz and make it 3-1.

Knighten’s big hit in the bottom of the second put Oklahoma up 5-3.

“Being in those moments, I’ve just got to keep myself calm, just stay relaxed and just kind of not think about what if, just kind of go for it,” she said. “And it paid off.”

Florida’s Chelsea Herndon came back with a solo blast in the third to cut Oklahoma’s lead to 5-4. The pitchers took over from there.

“Just a hard-fought two games,” Walton said. “Wish we could have pushed it to a third, and give us a chance. But I thought overall our players — really proud of our team.”

Oklahoma had just one senior in its lineup and has no senior pitchers. Gasso said her team will be focused again next season.

“We learned a lesson,” she said. “We are good at learning lessons. We’re not going to let this get in our way.”

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