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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Gators swept by Huskies, fall short of national championship

OKLAHOMA CITY - Two nights after triumphantly rounding the bases and getting buried at the bottom of a dogpile following her walk-off grand slam against Alabama, Ali Gardiner fell to her knees beside home plate with her head in her hands.

Washington's Danielle Lawrie struck out the senior first baseman for the final out in the top of the seventh inning, giving the Huskies a 3-2 win over the top-ranked Gators and their first-ever national championship Tuesday night in ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.

Third-seeded Washington (51-12) wasn't as dominant as it was in its eight-run blowout victory Monday night, but the Huskies were good enough to keep the Gators (63-5) from pushing the Women's College World Series championship series to three games.

Over the last two years, UF went 133-10, and the team topped many of the marks it set last season in 2009, including school records for team batting average (.323), slugging percentage (.543) and on-base percentage (.423).

This season, three players broke eight single-season records, including runs (69, Aja Paculba), home runs (18, Francesca Enea) and slugging percentage (.713, Enea and Kelsey Bruder).

But Washington, which was responsible for three of the Gators' five losses this year, kept UF from achieving its season-long goal of a national championship.

Unlike the teams' two previous matchups, UF found some success against Lawrie (42-8, 0.97 ERA). The Gators managed seven hits off the USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year, three more than they had in the last two meetings combined.

But after the first inning, Lawrie kept UF off the board, leaving 10 runners on base en route to an eight-strikeout performance and her second straight victory against the Gators - the team's first back-to-back losses since March 31, 2007.

"There's a reason she's the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament and probably the best pitcher in the country and one of the best pitchers in the world," UF coach Tim Walton said. "It seemed like every time we got somebody on base, she revved it up another gear. The last two innings, she probably revved it up two more gears."

Lawrie said she was motivated by comments made by Walton after she defeated the Gators in Palm Springs, Calif., with a two-hit, nine-inning shutout.

"One thing I did remember, and that's when we played them in Palm Springs - and I feel fine saying this - but I remember him coming out and saying, 'My team is like a UCLA or an Arizona,' after we beat them," Lawrie said. "I remember hearing him say that and not giving us any recognition for how we played."

UF, which helped lead the vastly improved Southeastern Conference to national prominence this season, fell short of bringing home the first national title for the program or the conference, while Washington won the fourth straight and 22nd overall championship for the Pacific-10 Conference.

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The Gators scored early - a vast improvement from only swinging at one pitch in the first inning Monday night - putting up one run after Paculba tripled and ran home on a passed ball - UF's first run of the tournament that did not come off a home run. They added another when Kristina Hilberth reached on an error, moved to second on an infield single by Enea, stole third and scored on Megan Bush's sacrifice fly.

But Washington immediately responded, stringing together three hits off pitcher Stacey Nelson (41-5, 0.61 ERA), who had her third straight shaky start in the circle. The senior gave up six hits and two earned runs in the final six innings of her college career.

"Losing sucks, especially on this stage," Nelson said. "There is a lot of pain that comes with the loss, but I'm always going to remember my time at Florida as the best time of my life."

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