UCLA reveals its imposing blueprint at Mary Nutter Classic

Courtesy Don Liebig

Briana Perez leads the Bruins with 23 hits.

Beating Oklahoma in February isn't as satisfying as winning the final game of the NCAA softball season in Oklahoma. Nevertheless, UCLA did its best to make this week worth remembering into spring.

The Bruins had laid low for the season's first two weeks -- they traveled to Hawaii for a tournament and then hosted their own without crossing paths with another ranked team. Then UCLA sauntered into the Mary Nutter Classic and beat the Sooners in a way few teams have in recent years.

Despite spotting No. 4 Oklahoma the opening run Friday night, No. 2 UCLA prevailed 7-1 in the game of the week in NCAA softball.

Entering this past weekend's sprawling event near Palm Springs, California, Oklahoma's seniors won national championships with as much regularity as they lost a game by six or more runs. Each had happened twice. Indeed, Oklahoma hadn't lost by as many as six runs since the same tournament in 2016, when Caleigh Clifton, Shay Knighten and Sydney Romero were freshmen.

Those Sooners, of course, bounced back. A day after that 2016 blowout loss, Oklahoma beat UCLA -- its first signature win en route to a national title. The Sooners not only beat the Bruins again the next year in Cathedral City, a home away from home for the Pac-12 school that always draws the biggest crowds to the venue, they even run-ruled the local favorites.

Most of the normal cautions about early-season results apply here. Thursday rainouts, almost as rare in the desert as Oklahoma losses, meant both teams took the field relatively fresh for Friday's marquee game. But it was still Oklahoma's second game of the day. The Sooners didn't save Giselle Juarez, who had success against UCLA a season ago in the Pac-12 and struck out 14 in a shutout against BYU in Friday's first game. (That still wasn't the week's best performance by an Arizona State transfer, thanks to Danielle Gibson going home run crazy for Arkansas.)

One game is one game. You have to go all the way back to, well, last year to see how the end of February doesn't define seasons. That was when Florida State lost back-to-back games to McNeese State and South Alabama. The season turned out all right for the Seminoles, who won the program's first NCAA championship.

And speaking of Florida State, UCLA's signature win isn't likely to dislodge the defending champion from No. 1 in the polls. The Seminoles scored 72 runs in six wins this past week, managing in a few days the kind of output it takes some teams most of a season to produce.

For all of that, UCLA's victory over Oklahoma is still worth filing away. The recent history between the teams is a small part of that, but mostly it's because of the blueprint it provides for the future.

The Bruins didn't face Juarez, but they faced Mariah Lopez, who had been Oklahoma's most effective pitcher this season. The junior suffered just her second career loss and allowed 10 percent of the total runs she's allowed in more than 200 career innings.

UCLA's offense, which hasn't always been the on-base percentage juggernaut one might expect, found ways on base to set up RBI opportunities for run producers Aaliyah Jordan and Briana Perez.

Those runs were surplus with Rachel Garcia at full steam in the pitching circle, and they kept coming in run-rule wins against Missouri, Nebraska and, most notably, Kentucky. That gave freshman Megan Faraimo some low-stress innings, culminating in a no-hitter on Sunday to improve to 4-0 with a 0.83 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 25 1/3 innings.

If UCLA is going to win its first title in nearly a decade, it's going to look a lot like this.

It all sets up nicely to watch how UCLA handles prosperity -- and a crowded schedule that will see the Bruins play 11 games in 10 days. The Bruins stay in the spotlight with two games (Wednesday and Friday) against Florida in Fullerton, California. The Gators and Bruins are two of the five remaining unbeaten teams in the Top 25.

You might remember the last time UCLA and Florida met, specifically the wild fourth inning that undid the Gators early in the Women's College World Series last season. Games played as the calendar flips from February to March don't have those stakes. But they do tell their own stories.

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