Tennessee was one pitch from falling into the losers’ bracket of the NCAA regional in Knoxville before Aubrey Leach drove a 3-2 pitch over the center-field wall for a home run in the seventh inning.
Tennessee (46-10) prevailed 7-3 and advances to the winners’ bracket title game at noon ET on Sunday against the winner of the elimination game Saturday between USC-Upstate (45-12) and the winner of the Ohio State-Longwood elimination game.
Leach’s second career home run capped a comeback for the ages for Tennessee, which had been no-hit by upset-minded USC-Upstate entering the seventh inning.
Aubrey Leach’s big home run
Freshman Caylan Arnold (20-8) picked up the win, going 6 innings before sophomore Matty Moss came on to finish the game in the seventh.
The Lady Vols rally came after they loaded the bases in the seventh off Atlantic Sun Conference Pitcher of the Year Holly McKinnon (25-8) on a walk, a hit batter and an error.
There were two outs when Tennessee turned to sophomore pinch-hitter Haley Bearden.
Bearden broke up the no-hit bid with a 2-RBI single up the middle to cut the lead to 3-2 and set up Leach’s dramatics, which came after Leach fell behind in the count 0-2.
A Jenna Holcomb single followed Leach’s blast, and then SEC Player of the Year Meghan Gregg hit her 13th home run of the year to make it 7-3.
Tennessee co-head coach Ralph Weekly said USC-Upstate was a team “nobody wants to play” when the NCAA Softball Tournament draw was revealed, and the Spartans showed why for six innings.
USC-Upstate scored 1 of its 2 runs in the first inning after the umpire at the plate missed a call, ruling a runner safe at home plate — even though the runner, Ansley Gilstrap — never touched home plate after a rundown.
There was more controversy in the bottom of the sixth inning when the Spartans added a run on an RBI single that Lady Vols co-head coach Karen Weekly felt involved obstruction, the runner appearing to interfere with Gregg at shortstop.
There was no controversy where it came to USC-Upstate’s pitching through the first six innings, however, as seniors Lexi Shubert and McKinnon kept Tennessee off the scoreboard.
UT didn’t even get a runner on base until the top of the sixth inning, when Shubert ran out of gas and walked the bases full after retiring the first batter on a groundout.
The Spartans turned to McKinnon, and she came through, fanning Lady Vols freshman pinch-hitter Taylor Rowland and then inducing Gregg to groundout, retiring the side.
Tennessee wasn’t finished, however, and now appears to be in prime position to win its regional and advance to host an NCAA Super Regional best-of-three series next week against the winner of the Texas A&M regional.
— NCAA Softball (@NCAAsoftball) May 20, 2017