- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Garland Cooper and Tammy Williams have been inseparable since Williams stepped on the Northwestern campus as a freshman last fall. Linked almost as much by their distinctive red hair as the power that resides in their bats, the pair have forged a bond that stands out even on a team as close as the Wildcats.
So it's only fitting that when Northwestern could have been reeling, having just surrendered the tying run on a two-out, two-strike pitch in the bottom of the seventh against softball giant and 10-time NCAA champion UCLA, Williams and Cooper teamed up to send the Wildcats through the best-of-three championship series at the Women's College World Series.
With back-to-back home runs in the top of the eighth inning off Anjelica Selden, who last year suffered a similar extra-inning fate in Game 3 of the championship series when Michigan's Samantha Findlay took her deep, Williams and Cooper provided the final margin in Northwestern's 3-1 win. By advancing to play for the title for the first time in program history, Northwestern has an opportunity to become the second Big Ten team in a row, and the second ever, to win the national title.
A surprise to many as the fourth overall seed in the tournament after winning the Big Ten regular season title (but dropping the conference tournament to Michigan), the Wildcats will enter Monday's final series as the only team to survive the first four days of play without a loss.
What began with Erin Dyer's two-out, two-strike home run in the seventh inning to send the team's first WCWS game against Alabama to extra innings ended with similar fireworks, as the Wildcats scored all three of their runs against the Bruins on solo home runs.
Senior catcher Jamie Dotson sent the first ball over the fence, driving a 2-0 pitch from Selden over the right field wall in the top of the second inning to give Northwestern a 1-0 lead. And for most of the next two hours, it looked like junior ace Eileen Canney might make that lone run hold up.
Working in and out of trouble against a loaded Bruins lineup, Canney allowed just three hits in the first six innings. But she also walked a pair and had to work out of a bases-loaded jam in the second inning, getting Tara Henry to ground out to short with two outs, as Williams made a nice running throw on the speedy outfielder's infield chopper.
After the game, Enquist talked about Canney's ability to consistently work the inside of the strike zone, and until the seventh-inning rally, it did appear that the Bruins had wasted their best opportunity to get to Canney while she searched for the limits of the strike zone.
"We've worked really hard throughout the season to kind of limit that time and make it as small as possible," Canney said. "Even during our pitching practice, if I throw a pitch that we don't think is a good pitch, we'll throw that same pitch to make it that much better. Obviously that makes it easier when you're out there in a game and the umpire is squeezing the corners, because then you have to make that adjustment."
Canney and the Wildcats may have also benefited from a generous call by the plate umpire in the bottom of the fifth inning. With a runner on first and one out, Canney's inside pitch hit Andrea Duran on the arm. But the umpire immediately signaled Duran back to the plate for not getting out of the way of the pitch, sparking a vigorous but fruitless protest from UCLA coach Sue Enquist. With Duran swinging on the play, it appeared that it would have been difficult for her to reverse momentum to avoid the pitch.
Back at the plate, Duran lined to Cooper at first base, who threw to Ashley Crane for the double play as the runner strayed from the bag.
One rally quelled, UCLA did mount a comeback in the bottom of the seventh, getting to Canney for three hits, including the pinch-hit heroics from Kristen Dedmon with two outs. Adopted by many of the neutral fans in the stadium, the Wildcats had most of the crowd of 5,641 on its feet cheering with two strikes, making the apparent shift in momentum all the more noticeable when all of the noise was suddenly coming from the UCLA dugout and fans.
Selden had seemed to find her groove by that point, recording all three outs in the bottom of the seventh by strikeout, but Northwestern had Williams, the team's leading hitter in average, home runs and RBI as a freshman, leading off the eighth.
Williams acknowledged that she felt the momentum shift after UCLA tied the game.
"I mean they had just scored the tying run, so of course they had the momentum coming into the eighth inning," she said. "So I was just going into the box, trying to get a hit for us."
On a 2-1 pitch, Williams did more than just get on base, blasting one of the deeper home runs of the week off the temporary boxes beyond the left field fence. Cooper, who affectionately dubbed her younger teammate "Mini-me" earlier in the season followed with a home run on a 2-0 count to extend the lead.
"Really, I didn't want to be upstaged by a freshman," Cooper deadpanned after the game. "Obviously Tammy came up for us big and I knew with UCLA, obviously, one run just wasn't going to do it. They were going to come back fighting the next inning, so I knew I had to make something happen again."
Suddenly having lost the momentum they had struggled so long to seize, the Bruins went down in order against Canney in the bottom of the inning, sending the Wildcats to Monday's action.
"UCLA is the standard in college softball," Northwestern coach Kate Drohan said. "They have the tradition and they have the weapons. And I am so proud of the way that my team felt that they didn't need to beat that today, they just needed to beat those 10 people on the field. ... I knew that something special was going to happen when last night after we had our team meeting, I turned to Caryl and I said, 'Our team is excited to play UCLA in the College World Series.'
"I don't think that happens very often."
Neither does the Big Ten beating the Pac-10 in the Women's College World Series. But the times, they are a changing.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.