- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- UCLA is used to playing on Friday at the Women's College World Series, the day on which the four first-day winners meet to determine which two teams will remain in the winner's bracket and get to take Saturday off.
The Bruins just aren't used to that action taking place before the sun rises on Friday.
Playing the final game of an opening day that was prolonged by a lengthy rain delay and two extra-inning games, the top-seeded Bruins tumbled into the loser's bracket with a 4-3 loss to Tennessee. As a result, the Bruins get the rest of Friday to ponder matters as they prepare for Saturday afternoon's elimination game against Alabama.
When Tennessee third baseman Jennifer Griffin stepped on third for the final out of the game at 3:01 a.m. ET, the Lady Vols had their second opening upset in as many years (they beat third-seeded Arizona in the first game last season) and UCLA had just its fourth loss in an opening game.
"UCLA is a great team, and they came in with a great game plan," Tennessee co-coach Karen Weekly said after the game. "And things didn't look like they were going to go our way early in the game, but we told our kids yesterday there's not been a team yet that's come into a World Series and have everything go perfect. You're going to have some ups and downs, and you've just got to keep fighting. And I thought our kids were very resilient tonight."
Nothing typified the night more than Andrea Duran, the Pac-10 Player of the Year, swinging and missing with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the sixth as a Monica Abbott rise ball sailed out of the strike zone.
Certainly, all is not lost for the Bruins. As recently as 2003, Sue Enquist's team lost its opening game and still won the national championship. And for at least the first five innings of this game, the Bruins looked very much like the tournament favorite.
So perhaps more than exposing the Bruins as a flawed team, a three-run sixth inning for Tennessee may have simply ushered in the Lady Volunteers as very legitimate contenders. Tennessee hitters lived up to their gaudy statistics by coming up with clutch hits, both small-ball slaps and big-time rips, against an elite hurler in UCLA sophomore Anjelica Selden.
"Selden is a great pitcher, a tremendous pitcher," Weekly said. "And she really had our number early on, and I'm really proud of the way our kids hung in there and battled."
After having no hits through five innings, the Lady Vols responded with a barrage of five consecutive hits in the sixth, sparked by some of the speed that dots the lineup. Said Weekly, "We weren't getting anything done in the short game, and we made a couple of adjustments there. And our slappers finally put the ball on the ground and things finally started to go from there."
And despite what amounts to at least a vocal minority who question Abbott's mental toughness, the lanky strikeout queen hung in after a tough start and made the big pitches at the end of the game.
Despite recording 11 strikeouts for her 22nd double-digit strikeout performance of the season, Abbott's night was as much about grit and determination as overpowering stuff.
"I felt like at times I was throwing really well, and at times I was battling myself a little bit," Abbott said. "But through it all, I just stayed focused on taking the game one pitch at a time and throwing the best that I could at that moment."
Tennessee wasn't able to capitalize on last season's opening win, losing its second game to UCLA and having to take the arduous road of playing two games on Saturday. The Vols will try to avoid the same fate against Northwestern, a team they defeated 3-2 on neutral ground earlier in the season, on Friday in a game guaranteed to send one surprise through to the winner's bracket.
It didn't wrap up until most folks had gone to bed, but the final game of the opening day of play proved worth the wait.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Playing the final game of an opening day that was prolonged by a lengthy rain delay and two extra-inning games, the top-seeded Bruins tumbled into the loser's bracket with a 4-3 loss to Tennessee.