- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Monica Abbott, Alicia Hollowell, Cat Osterman ... and Eileen Canney. Friday's slate of winner's bracket games in Oklahoma City featured four of the best pitchers in the sport, even if many fans couldn't have named the Northwestern pitcher if you had spotted them the full song catalogue of Dexy's Midnight Runners.
But after Hollowell and Arizona beat Texas in the night's first game, despite Osterman allowing just one hit in six innings, Canney proved she very much belongs in any conversation about elite hurlers. Canney pitched a one-hitter of her own to beat Abbott and the Lady Vols 2-0 and move the Wildcats to within one win of a spot in the championship series.
The Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Canney picked up plenty of big wins during the regular season, including a road victory against Anjelica Selden and UCLA. But the ace had run into hard luck in the postseason, dropping a 6-0 decision to Michigan in the conference tournament when her defense let her down and losing to Massachusetts in the opening game of the Evanston Super Regional before picking up the win that sent the Wildcats to Oklahoma City in the third game against the Minutewomen.
Even in Northwestern's opening win against Alabama in the Women's College World Series on Thursday, Canney was solid but unspectacular, eventually yielding to eventual winner Courtnay Foster in the sixth inning.
But when the team needed her most -- with Abbott mowing down batters right and left -- Canney showed her skill in shutting down a lineup that got to Selden for four runs and boasted five All-Americans and three .400 hitters.
Northwestern struck first with an RBI single from Kristen Amegin, which scored Katie Logan in the top of the sixth. But as was the case against UCLA in their opener, the Lady Vols mounted a rally in the sixth inning, trying to exploit a tiring pitcher as the spotlight on the pitching circle grew even brighter.
After walking Jennifer Griffin and hitting Liane Horiuchi, Canney faced the top of the batting order with no outs on the scoreboard. But instead of buckling, she needed just eight pitches to get Sarah Fekete to ground to short, Natalie Brock to strike out and Lindsay Schutzler to fly to left field.
"Leenie did an outstanding job getting out of the sixth inning -- really, really a huge boost," coach Kate Drohan said. "And I also think Tori Nyberg, my pitching coach, called a heck of a game, and she really did a great job with a very potent offense."
After an insurance run in the top of the seventh on Darcy Sengewald's third home run of the season, Canney calmly set down the Lady Vols in the bottom of the frame to send the Wildcats through to Sunday's action.
"I was really just trying to work the corners and not put anything down the middle," Canney said. "And I knew if I hit my spots then even if they put it in play, our defense could get the ball fast enough to get them out."
In addition to allowing just the one hit, Canney struck out 10 and allowed two walks for her 25th win.
Before leaving the outskirts of the Windy City for Oklahoma City, senior outfielder Sheila McCorkle interrupted Drohan's speech about focus to remind her coach that the team was making the trip with the sole intent of winning it all.
If Canney pitches like she did against Tennessee, with an offense that has shown a knack for coming up with timely hits in Oklahoma City, the Wildcats have a chance to make it two titles in a row for the Big Ten.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Canney pitched a one-hitter to beat Abbott and the Lady Vols 2-0 and move the Wildcats to within one win of a spot in the championship series.