- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- UCLA and Texas may have entered the Women's College World Series expecting to play each other with the season on the line. The setting of Saturday night's showdown between the Bruins and Longhorns (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET), however, feels completely unnatural.
Saturday in Oklahoma City is known as "Elimination Day," as the day's four games eliminate four teams from the field of eight. From early morning until late at night, six teams spend the day battling for their postseason existence, while the bracket's two undefeated teams are rewarded with a day of rest.
Touring the nearby zoo or searching for Oklahoma City's well-hidden Starbucks seemed like a more likely Saturday destination than Don E. Porter Hall of Fame Stadium for the top-seeded Bruins and third-seeded Longhorns.
Instead, the two teams many expected to meet in a best-of-three set for the national title will close out Elimination Day with one game to decide who won't need to worry about setting the alarm on Sunday morning.
For Cat Osterman, who started the weekend by collecting her third consecutive USA Softball Player of the Year award and then striking out a WCWS seven-inning record 18 batters in an opening win against Arizona State, a loss would bring a sudden close to a career that lacks only a championship.
Nearly perfect for five innings against Arizona on Friday, Osterman allowed just one hit in a 2-0 defeat, but couldn't get any run support from her teammates as they struggled to solve Wildcats ace Alicia Hollowell. It's a familiar theme for the Longhorns, who have scored just 11 runs in 10 Women's College World Series games during Osterman's career. The offense is unquestionably better this season than at any point in Osterman's tenure, but if they can't put runs on the board against the Bruins, the improvements will ultimately still leave them on the short side of success.
On UCLA's side, seniors Caitlin Benyi, Andrea Duran and Emily Zaplatosch began their careers with two consecutive national championships but now face the prospect of falling short of what many perceive as the program's birthright for a second year in a row after taking over leadership reigns from Keria Goerl, Natasha Whatley and other stars.
To even reach this point, the Bruins had to stave off elimination on Saturday afternoon, beating Alabama 4-1 and eliminating the Crimson Tide. While hardly flawless in the win, the Bruins looked more like the team that won the Pac-10 than the club that squandered a lead against Tennessee in the opener.
Usually brutally efficient at capitalizing on opportunities, the Bruins looked mortal against the Lady Vols -- best symbolized by the struggles of arguably their best player. Late in the game against the Lady Vols, Duran came up empty in a key at-bat with the bases loaded, swinging through a Monica Abbott rise ball.
But against the Crimson Tide, Duran keyed UCLA's efficient win. Leading off the game, she blasted a triple and scored a run to give the team immediate breathing room. And after Alabama tied things up in the second, Duran answered with a deep home run to center in the top of the third inning to give the Bruins the lead for good.
It's a given that the heart of the order, sparked by Duran, must create scoring chances against Texas. As Arizona star Caitlin Lowe said, "With a good pitcher like Cat, you're probably only going to see one good pitch in an at-bat. So you need to make sure you really capitalize on that one pitch."
And unlike last year's WCWS encounter -- the last time these teams played each other -- it will be Osterman challenging UCLA hitters. Placed in the position of playing two games in one day last season, the Longhorns needed 11 innings out of Osterman to beat Arizona in the first contest of the day, leaving coach Connie Clark with little choice but to start Meagan Denny in the evening game against the Bruins.
The result was a 3-0 UCLA win that ended Texas' season.
The Bruins will rely on sophomore ace Anjelica Selden to start again after working all seven innings against Alabama.
"I just have so much confidence in Jelly," UCLA coach Sue Enquist said. "Although it was two pitchers that got us here, she's got so much stamina. And Jelly has so much movement on the ball, so you may see her speed be down at times, but it's the movement that makes her so effective."
The spotlight will surely be on Osterman squaring off against UCLA's potent batting order, but the battle between Selden and Texas' enigmatic bats may ultimately hold the key to which team avoids a surprisingly early exit.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.