KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Ole Miss played small and came up tall.
The University of Alabama tried for big hits and came up short.
Ole Miss parlayed its small-ball strategy into an early lead and the Crimson Tide couldn’t come up with a big hit when it had a chance to catch up in the SEC Softball Tournament semifinal on Saturday at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium.
The eighth-seeded Rebels won 4-1 to advance to the championship game against LSU, and fifth-seeded Alabama returned home to await word on its draw in the NCAA Tournament.
The Crimson Tide (42-16) will learn tonight who and where it will play in the 64-team national title tournament. Alabama is hopeful that its victories over Texas A&M and Arkansas at the SEC Tournament were enough to solidify a top-16 seed and the chance to host a regional for the 13th consecutive year.
“I know we’re going to be in the tournament,” UA coach Patrick Murphy said. “That’s all we want, really. We want a chance.”
Ole Miss (39-18) banked on its small-ball game and some crafty base-running to build a lead in the second inning.
Kaylee Horton laid down a bunt single to lead off. With one out, Paige McKinney punched a single up the middle, advancing Horton to third when she lured Alabama into a rundown, with McKinney safe at second on an error. Miranda Strother singled through the left side to drive in a run, then initiated another rundown to get Horton home for a 2-0 lead.
The Rebels kept running, and Alabama’s defense wasn’t able to take advantage. Kylan Becker drew a walk and kept going toward second base. UA tried to get her out, allowing Strother to come home on an error.
“We’ve just been a small-ball team, we’ve been a quick team, we’ve been one to put a ball in action and just keep runners going,” Strother said. “It’s worked for us so far and I think that’s what we’re going to continue to do to win ballgames.”
Just like that, Ole Miss was ahead 3-0.
The Rebels increased their lead when pinch hitter Dakota Matiko, who was 5-for-24 without an RBI or an extra-base hit coming into the game, launched a solo home run in the fifth inning.
Alabama starter Sydney Littlejohn (15-8) pitched into the sixth inning. She allowed four runs on eight hits with two walks and five strikeouts. Madi Moore pitched four hitless outs of relief.
“I didn’t have my best game and I think that was a lot of the issue,” Littlejohn said. “I wasn’t hitting my spots as accurately or as sharply as I would have liked to.”
Alabama finally struck in the bottom of the sixth. Chandler Dare, Marisa Runyon and Bailey Hemphill hit back-to-back-to-back singles, with Hemphill’s hit driving in Dare. That left UA with two runners on and no outs, but Ole Miss’ pint-sized keg of dynamite, pitcher Kaitlin Lee, got three outs without allowing another run.
Peyton Grantham drew a leadoff walk in the seventh, the first walk Lee (19-10) had allowed in three complete-game wins. Dare got a hit to bring up Runyon with two runners on base and she hit a hard shot to left field that was caught for the final out.
“We still had the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the seventh,” Murphy said. “That’s what I ask them to do every single game if we’re behind, just at least get the tying run to the plate.
“There was some fighting going on there, some resiliency that was good to see.”
Lee, a 5-foot-6 junior college transfer, allowed seven hits with two strikeouts. She has carried Ole Miss throughout the tournament.
“She can throw a changeup for a strike at any count,” Murphy said. “I think that’s why she’s successful, because it’s in the back of your mind as a hitter.”
Alabama did have some offensive success, even if it didn’t translate into multiple runs. Dare and Runyon both went 2-for-3 and Merris Schroder hit a double. UA tallied seven total hits.
Not only did UA add two quality wins to its resume, Littlejohn believes it left Knoxville as a better team.
“Obviously we wanted to go to the championship, but it’s one of those things (where) we learned a lot about ourselves at this tournament, that we do have a lot of fight and we have a lot of determination and the best is best to come for us,” she said. “It was a good week for us to build up our confidence and get us ready for postseason play.”
Reach Tommy Deas at [email protected] or at 205-722-0224.