No walk in the park, but NC State wins
For the first time since the advent of the four-team regionals in 2005, only one national seed failed to win each of its first two games. But if chalk ruled the bracket Saturday, its reign wasn't without challenge.
This reflects Saturday's NCAA tournament results through 10 p.m. ET.
Five things to know from Saturday
1. NC State wasn't just lucky to pull Saturday's lone upset.
Shortly after his team played NC State in a winners bracket game in the Knoxville regional a season ago, Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly congratulated the Wolfpack on playing a "perfect game" against the tournament's No. 7 seed.
One small problem. Tennessee's 1-0 win in 11 innings was a decidedly imperfect reward for NC State.
No one had more cause for heartbreak that day than NC State pitcher Emily Weiman, who went the distance and went toe to toe with counterpart Ellen Renfroe. But instead of time to lick her wounds after pitching a gem, Weiman found herself back in the circle hours later to pitch an elimination game against James Madison. By the time she and her team got another look at Tennessee in the regional final, the Wolfpack were physically and mentally spent.
Regionals are not designed to reward the valiant.
Weiman was decidedly imperfect in Saturday's 5-4 win against No. 4 Georgia. The junior set an NCAA tournament record with 11 walks. Georgia left 13 runners on base against her in seven innings and will rue its missed chances long into the night -- longer even than the elimination game the Bulldogs were forced to play against UAB.
But it's NC State that has the perfect record after becoming just the fifth team to beat a top-four seed before a regional final since 2005.
And it's Weiman who will be rested for Sunday's regional final against the Bulldogs.
Any pitcher would have had her work cut out for her against Georgia, which entered the NCAA tournament with the fifth-best slugging percentage in the country, all the momentum of an SEC tournament championship that included wins against Alabama and Florida and a 9-0 win against Chattanooga to open the regional on Friday. A day after she pitched a three-hit shutout against UAB, the task of taming that Georgia lineup in Athens fell to Weiman.
"Up and down the lineup they've just got hitting," Weiman said. "It's kind of a pick-your-poison type of thing. We were keeping the ball low, that's what the game plan was -- keeping the ball low, working the corners, hitting my spots and stuff like that. I had to work through some tough spots but just not giving in to the other team."
Walking 11 batters, two more than the previous tournament record shared by several pitchers, wasn't part of the plan.
"I was having trouble kind of finding the strike zone a little bit," Weiman deadpanned. "I'm sure you could see that."
Obviously, there is danger in putting even more runners on base against a team that hits the ball like Georgia. Play the game out 100 times and the free passes would likely come back to haunt Weiman in at least 99 of them. At the same time, if a pitcher has the mental strength to not let all those runners occupy her head as well as the bases, there is something to say for giving the Bulldogs one base instead of giving them pitches they could hit for extra bases.
"I live for the pressure spots, even more like a bases-loaded, one-out kind of deal," Weiman said. "I really think I thrive under that. And I know my team is going to come through for me offensively and defensively."
Unlike a season ago, when they never solved Renfroe, the Wolfpack gave Weiman cover Saturday. After the first two batters struck out in the top of the first inning, Molly Hutchison put NC State in front with a home run. After Georgia pulled level in the third inning, sophomore Lana Van Dyken led off the top of the fourth inning with another home run to reclaim the lead. That matched the number of home runs Van Dyken hit in her first 51 starts this season. And she wasn't done. With her team in front by a lone nerve-jangling run in the top of the seventh, Van Dyken singled home two more runs for a 5-2 lead that gave Weiman plenty of margin for error in the bottom of the seventh.
To make it count, she'll have to do it again Sunday. But a good night's sleep is a good place to start.
"It's nice to have the rest of the day off, for sure," Weiman said. "We're going to have to come up with a game plan again. They're definitely going to change theirs. They're going to make adjustments, and then it's our job to make them as well."
2. Good news, even better ending for Oklahoma.
Seeded teams that opened with a win were then 107-24 in winners bracket games on the second day of competition since 2005. That's a good record, but it's far from a perfect record. And in none of those seasons did all 16 national seeds start out with back-to-back wins. As events in Athens proved, there are always upsets.
There could have been many more.
No. 8 Florida State and No. 16 Minnesota won in extra innings. Five more seeds won by a single run, No 6 Louisiana-Lafayette and No. 7 Oklahoma in walk-off fashion against Texas and Texas A&M, respectively.
The big news for Oklahoma at the start of its game against Texas A&M was the return of Lauren Chamberlain, who sat out the regional opener with a partially torn PCL sustained in the final weekend of the regular season. The All-American looked severely limited in her movements, but Chamberlain being Chamberlain, still lined a hit that reached the fence in her first at-bat and then, even without much of a back leg to drive off, hit a home run in her second at-bat.
But it was Brittany Williams, the batter after Chamberlain in the lineup, who may have kept alive Oklahoma's hopes of a return to the World Series. Down two runs entering the bottom of the seventh, Oklahoma pulled level on Shelby Pendley's bases-loaded walk. After Aggies first baseman Jenna Stark made a fantastic catch on Chamberlain's line drive, she couldn't corral a grounder from Williams as the tying and winning runs scored.
Oklahoma must wonder after two games if all the innings and all the work pitcher Kelsey Stevens has done to this point are starting to catch up to her. It will wonder how much Chamberlain will be able to contribute. But like so many of its seeded peers, it had all night to ponder those things because it was still safely in the winners bracket.
3. Whitney Canion and Lacey Waldrop rose to the occasion.
Most of the nation's high profile hurlers were in top form Saturday -- UCLA's Ally Carda, Arizona State's Dallas Escobedo, Oregon's Cheridan Hawkins, Florida's Hannah Rogers and Alabama's Jackie Traina among them. But none of them were needed to quite the same degree as Baylor's Canion and Florida State's Waldrop.
In the day's two most anticipated pitching matchups, Canion and Waldrop got the best of Tulsa's Aimee Creger and South Florida's Sara Nevins, respectively, in games that brought back memories of a more pitching friendly era.
A day after she needed just 94 pitches to record 15 strikeouts in a two-hit complete game against Northwestern State, Canion outlasted Creger in a game where the strike zone forced both aces to pitch to contact a little more than they might choose to in a perfect world. Behind early after Tulsa's Cierra Hughes lined an RPI triple over a shallow outfield, Canion looked every bit the sixth-year veteran the rest of the way. That she pitched as well as she did on back-to-back days, her first back-to-back complete games since the Oklahoma series more than a month ago, bodes well for the Lady Bears in Sunday's regional final and as they watch events in Athens, their super regional partner.
Waldrop was even better, although it was Nevins who chased a no-hitter for much of the nearly four hours of softball required for Florida State to come away with a 2-0 win in 10 innings. One question for the Seminoles was how they would fare against a pitcher like Nevins, and like Escobedo, whom they will face if both teams take care of business Sunday. That question remains, but so does the reality that Waldrop, who allowed nine hits and had seven strikeouts Saturday, is good enough to keep them in any game.
4. Washington remained ahead of the game.
Partly because BYU's inclusion meant it was a day ahead of the rest of the schedule and partly because its games weren't broadcast or streamed, the Seattle regional played out in relative obscurity in the far left corner of the map.
The good news for No. 12 Washington is it knows it will have a share of the super regional spotlight. Yet again.
With a 9-0 run-rule win against Northwestern on Saturday, Washington won a regional for the sixth season in a row. And in winning three games against BYU, Iona and Northwestern by a combined 26-0 margin, it is in the clubhouse with a style points score that its peers will be hard pressed to match Sunday. Pitchers Kaitlin Inglesby and Bryana Walker allowed a combined eight hits between them in the three wins, and freshman Ali Aguilar looked little troubled by her postseason surroundings, going 5-for-10 at the plate with eight RBIs.
5. The other side of Sunday.
UCF has its work cut out for it in Sunday's regional final against Florida. After wins Saturday against Florida A&M and Stetson to stave off elimination, it still needs to beat the fifth-seeded Gators twice if it is to reach a super regional -- the same Gators who outscored their first two opponents 22-0 and beat UCF 10-6 in the regular season.
But the Knights will be out there, which for junior Farrah Sullivan means something beyond what the scoreboard can tell us. The American Athletic Conference player of the year for the regular season conference champions, Sullivan did her part Saturday with two home runs. She also played in the Gainesville regional as a freshman in 2012. That was the last time her dad ever saw her play. He passed away shortly before the start of the 2013 season. Which is why one more day on that field matters.
She plays Sunday to earn a chance to keep playing next weekend. Every player on every field tomorrow will do the same. But there is also meaning in being out there at all, in playing for those who helped you get there.
"I feel like still having him in the stands is amazing," Sullivan said. "I know he's still up there for me."
Saturday's honor roll
Annie Aldrete, Tennessee
After hitting a home run in Friday's win against Charleston Southern, she stepped up in class and hit two out of the park against Virginia Tech. That's two NCAA tournament games for the Californian and three home runs and nine RBIs. All of that from a player who is not only at the end of her first long college season but who took on the added physical and mental responsibilities of essentially full-time catching duties midway through the campaign.
Haley Elliott, Lipscomb
There is a lot of focus here on the teams that are now just a win away from a super regional, but Saturday in the NCAA tournament is also about surviving to play another day. Half the original field is gone. Lipscomb is not on that list after it won a pair of elimination games to advance to the Knoxville regional final against Tennessee. Elliott contributed two walks in a win against Charleston Southern, but she saved her best work for the second elimination game against Virginia Tech. She went 3-for-3 with two home runs and six RBIs in a 12-3 win.
Cheridan Hawkins, Oregon
The overall No. 1 seed looked like it might join the list of close calls through much of Saturday's game against Wisconsin, but even when the Badgers pulled even at 1-1 on a home run in the fourth inning, it felt like a matter of when, not if, the Ducks would get the job done. That's mostly because the lone long ball notwithstanding, Hawkins was so good. She finished with a two-hitter and 11 strikeouts and the offense finally came around in a 6-1 win.
Sara Nevins, South Florida
Like Elliott, Nevins lived the elimination day experience. So good for almost the entirety of the game against Florida State, when double-digit illegal pitches were the closest the Seminoles came to offense, she logged nearly 200 pitches by the time it was over. Still, there really is no tomorrow if a team loses twice in the tournament, so Nevins was back in the circle later in the day after South Carolina took a 2-1 lead on the Bulls. She steadied the ship and gave her teammates time to come up with two runs in the seventh for a walk-off win.
Kelsey Nunley, Kentucky
It didn't have quite the same profile as the pitching duels involving Baylor or Florida State, but No. 14 Kentucky had its hands full with James Madison giant-killer Jailyn Ford. Fortunately, the Wildcats had Nunley. Showing no signs of fatigue from her extended work in the SEC tournament, Nunley struck out 11 batters and allowed just five hits in a 2-1 win against the Dukes. That came a day after she struck out nine in a four-hit shutout against Ohio. Kentucky needs to get its offense going, but the lack thereof has given Nunley a stage to show she's a pitcher who can carry a team.
Shelby Pendley, Oklahoma
If you love softball, or even just the fundamental ethos of competition, you had to enjoy the second of Pendley's two home runs against Texas A&M. She had just allowed a grand slam on the first pitch of her relief stint in the circle, a hit that gave the Aggies the lead against the Sooners. Taking her turn at the plate the next inning, the swing that almost carried her out of the batter's box and sent the ball soaring with the kind of distance usually reserved for Chamberlain was pure venom. She was angry and she wanted to make the ball suffer for it. She was credited with the win in the circle, but she earned it at the plate with two home runs, two walks and four RBIs.
Lindsey Stephens, Texas
Turnabout is fair play. On the wrong end of Louisiana-Lafayette's walk-off win earlier in the day, Stephens earned Texas another shot at the Ragin' Cajuns when she hit a two-out three-run home run in the top of the seventh inning of Saturday evening's elimination game against Mississippi State.
Hallie Wilson, Arizona
Are there more ways to hit a home run? Wilson will hit it if you can come up with one. Arizona's leadoff slugger legged out both an inside-the-park home run and one of the more traditional variety in a 9-8 win against LSU. The Wildcats were the most prolific slugging team in the country this season by a healthy margin, and they are still outdoing themselves. Through two games, 43 percent of their hits went for extra bases, compared to 40 in the regular season.
What Sunday holds
Georgia is the only seeded team that needs to win two games to reach a super regional. In all other cases, the unseeded team must win twice to advance.
No. 1 Oregon vs. Wisconsin
No. 2 Alabama vs. South Alabama (ESPN3, 2 p.m. ET)
No. 3 UCLA vs. Notre Dame (ESPN3, 3 p.m. ET)
No. 4 Georgia vs, NC State
No. 5 Florida vs. UCF
No. 6 Louisiana-Lafayette vs. Texas (ESPN3, 1 p.m. ET)
No. 7 Oklahoma vs. Texas A&M (ESPN3, 2 p.m. ET)
No. 8 Florida State vs. South Florida (ESPN2, 12 p.m. ET)
No. 9 Arizona State vs. Michigan (ESPNU, 5:30 p.m. ET)
No. 10 Tennessee vs. Lipscomb
No. 11 Arizona vs. LSU (ESPN2, 4:30 p.m. ET)
No. 13 Baylor vs. Tulsa
No. 14 Kentucky vs. DePaul
15 Missouri vs. Nebraska
No. 16 Minnesota vs. Auburn