Where Arizona goes for its resolve worked Friday against Ole Miss in the first game of the Super Regional, a 5-2 victory over the Rebels at jampacked Hillenbrand Stadium.
Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza says a little prayer to calm her down at the plate in the heat of the moment.
Malia Martinez does not necessarily need divine intervention. All she can ask for to overcome pressure is “knowing my teammates have my back.”
Taylor McQuillin’s source of strength comes from how her teammates respond to adversity. After Ole Miss took leads of 1-0 in the first inning and 2-1 in the second inning, the Rebels’ slight margin did not last long. “I got stronger as my team got stronger,” she said.
Arizona coach Mike Candrea said he gets full value, perhaps even more so, from No. 9 batter Carli Campbell, whom he calls, “my little tanner.” Campbell’s 2-for-2 performance was symbolic of Candrea’s bottom third of the order — along with Hanah Bowen and Peanut Martinez. That trio went a combined 5 for 7 with three runs and an RBI.
No. 6 Arizona (46-12) will try to eliminate Ole Miss (41-19) on Saturday at 5 p.m. at Hillenbrand and return to the Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2010. A loss for the Wildcats sets up a winner-take-all game Sunday at 5 p.m.
“We have a whole roster full of talent and anyone at any moment can make big things happen,” said Malia Martinez, the junior third baseman who went 4 for 4 with two doubles and two RBIs.
"Pressure is a provilege." — Arizona's Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza pic.twitter.com/hDOQoaokBq
Entering the game, Malia Martinez had only five doubles all year. Her four hits matched her season-high at Utah on April 5 in another 4-for-4 performance. That was against a much lesser opponent, not one worthy of a spot in a Super Regional such as Ole Miss, part of a conference (SEC) that had 13 teams make the NCAA tournament.
Pressure? What pressure?
“I wasn’t trying to do anything too crazy, just keeping it simple and taking the pressure off myself knowing my teammates have my back no matter what,” Malia Martinez said. “I know the Super Regional is a big deal but as long as we play every game with that mentality no matter what … I wasn’t putting too much pressure on myself and relying on my teammates helped.”
Palomino-Cardoza, who finished 2 for 3 with two RBIs, exhibited Arizona’s fortitude by responding with an opposite-field RBI single, tying the game at 2 in the second inning, the very next pitch after it appeared she hit what could have been an extra-base hit down the right field line but the ball was ruled foul.
Taylor McQuillin talks about her performance in the 5-2 win over Ole Miss. The senior ace had nine strikeouts with four walks in 7 innings with five hits allowed. Only one of the runs was earned. pic.twitter.com/iVyOgADwgc
That was the story of the game: Arizona’s resilience when things could have come undone in a best-of-three scenario with the ever-elusive return trip to the WCWS in the balance.
“A big thing for me calming myself down is taking a second to breathe and say a little prayer for me that really calms me down, and that’s exactly what I did, and I kept it simple,” Palomino-Cardoza said. “We always talk about ‘Pressure is a Privilege.’ Getting to be in that situation. Getting to think I can be the one to help this team is a lot of fun.”
McQuillin (23-7) and Arizona’s defense also calmed down as the game went on. After throwing 52 pitches in the first two innings, McQuillin pitched only 75 over the last five.
Arizona 5, Ole Miss 2. Taylor McQuillin dominant in the end. Game 2 of the Super Regional tomorrow at 5 PM at Hillenbrand. pic.twitter.com/HY3vpRukKJ
The Rebels did not have a baserunner advance beyond first base in the last four innings. McQuillin did not allow a hit in that span and walked only one while striking out three.
“Instead of worrying the last part of the game, she was attacking and getting stronger,” said Candrea, who earned career win No. 1,609 in his 34 years at Arizona and improved his Super Regional record to 15-17.
Overall, McQuillin finished with nine strikeouts and four walks with five hits allowed in addition to her one earned run. She outdueled Tucson native Brittany Finney (18-10). The Ole Miss starter did not walk a batter and struck out three but she allowed 12 hits and the defense behind her committed three errors.
McQuillin said of the first two innings, “We let the game get quick on us. They got the leadoff batter on and then they started running around (with four stolen bases) and they were doing Ole Miss type things.
You did it again, Wildcat fans!
“For me, it was just keeping them off the bases so I can keep this thing rolling.”
“This thing” is not exactly a crusade to get back to the WCWS for the first time in nine years. Listening to Candrea talk, it’s more about his team simply believing it can feel good about the next at-bat, or the next inning … the next game. That’s it.
“We know where we want to go,” he said. “You have to take care of business. I’m not going to get ahead of myself. I’m a guy that kind of stays where my feet are.
“Our body of work has been done. The one thing that I really stressed with this group is learning how to handle the big moment and being able to control that. … I don’t live in the past. Never will. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be coaching. “
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.