OKLAHOMA CITY -- College softball's best knockout puncher took one squarely on the chin in the late rounds Monday night.
Oklahoma came up swinging like the champion it was expected to be. The champion it is again one win from becoming.
Pushed to the finish line and beyond for the first time this postseason, No. 1 Oklahoma came from behind for a 5-3 win in 12 innings against No. 7 Tennessee in the longest game in the championship round of the Women's College World Series since 1984.
Down to its last out and its last strike, the Sooners scored three runs to tie the game in the bottom of the 11th and ended the marathon on Lauren Chamberlain's two-run home run in the bottom of the 12th.
It was a win more harrowing than just about any the nation's most dominant team had all season, but a win that was somehow all the more convincing for the drama.
"That was the greatest game I've ever been a part of," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said.
That her team was still a part of it when the fireworks began after so many scoreless innings had everything to do with one player, the two-time reigning national player of the year in the circle. Keilani Ricketts opened and closed the regular season with no-hitters against Stanford and arch rival Oklahoma State, respectively. She opened the World Series with a no-hitter against Michigan. She entered Monday's start with a 34-1 record and a 1.21 ERA.
But if she was perfect at other times, she has never been better than Monday night. Not given the stakes, not given what happened in the last game she pitched in the championship round and not given the 188 pitches she threw.
Her ERA ticked up all the way to 1.23 after Monday's game. So did the respect, already ample, a lot of people have for her.
"She just was probably the best I've seen her," said Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly, who worked with Ricketts on the national team this past summer, where she put together a similarly impressive start in defeat in the gold-medal game of the ISF World Championship. "One thing she was doing was really hitting the inside pitch, from where I saw it."
Early in the night, it appeared Tennessee would be fortunate to get the ball out of the infield. Actually, given that Ricketts struck out the side in order in the first inning and six of the first nine batters through three perfect innings, even getting the ball to the infield at times seemed like progress. That dominance didn't last. Her control slipped a bit and the Lady Vols worked walks where hits were hard to come by. Still, Ricketts kept getting outs.
Her performance had a lot to do with the singular talent that sets her apart from the rest of college softball. It also had a lot to do with what makes her such an integral part of the success around her.
"I think her chase for perfection, always, is something I admire about her," Chamberlain said. "She's always trying to reach the pinnacle of what she's capable of, and I think that rubs off on a bunch of our team -- it does definitely for me. She's a hard worker, really tries to perfect her skills. I think that's a cool quality to have when you have so much influence on your teammates and other people around you that can pick up on that."
Meanwhile, it wasn't even clear that Ricketts was the best pitcher in Hall of Fame Stadium for most of the night. Sharp in two complete games during the opening rounds of the World Series, Ellen Renfroe was even better against a lineup that leads the nation in scoring. Unable to solve Renfroe, the Sooners went scoreless for 10 innings, one of their longest such droughts in a season now 60 games old.
Then came the uppercut to the jaw -- a jaw whose strength some questioned given the way Oklahoma lost the final two games of the championship series against Alabama a season ago and the scarcity of close games this season. After back-to-back singles by Kat Dotson and Lauren Gibson in the top of the 11th, Madison Shipman drove a ball over the fence in center for a 3-0 lead, Oklahoma's biggest deficit of the postseason.
Carried by their ace for so many innings, it was up to the lineup to live up to its credentials.
"Keilani was pitching a great game," Oklahoma's Brianna Turang said. "And I guess even when I was up, I was like, 'We've got to do this for her.' I mean, she's pitching so well. She's helped us out so much throughout this season.
"I think with our lineup, it's about who is going to do it. And there is no question with us."
Ricketts picked herself up first with a one-out double in the bottom of the inning that slowed the trickle of fans heading for the exits. A double from Brittany Williams brought her home, but the second out of the inning put the Sooners on the brink of a surprising, borderline stunning, defeat. And it wasn't Ricketts or Chamberlain who had the game in their hands. It was the bottom of the order, Destinee Martinez, Callie Parsons and Turang.
For most teams, that would significantly lengthen the odds of a miracle. For Oklahoma, it's not clear they lengthen them at all. A triple from Martinez and a double from Parsons tied the game and stole the momentum -- highlighted by the odd sight of a team piling out of the dugout to celebrate with a hitter who had just been thrown out at third base, as Parsons was to end the inning after trying to stretch her double into a triple.
It continued when Turang, the .400 hitter who essentially is a second leadoff hitter in the No. 9 hole, actually led off the 12th inning with the double that set up Chamberlain's walk-off blast.
Against any other lineup in almost any other year, Renfroe would have been the story of the night, a brilliant performance to bring a championship within reach. Against this lineup, she was just a couple of pitches short.
"There's no break in the Oklahoma lineup," Renfroe said. "Every single pitch, it's all you've got. If you don't give everything, then it's going to get hit out, something bad is going to happen."
Oklahoma is who it is because of its stars, but it's also the team that it is because Williams, Martinez, Parsons and Turang made it so. Gasso knew she had the ace and the big bats. The final piece was the bottom of the lineup.
"I really felt it probably through conference play and into April," Gasso said of knowing what she had. "They really started getting hot, and they started getting hot together. That's really when I felt them come alive."
The drama that unfolded over nearly four hours of softball will fade as the sun comes up Tuesday. What will be left is the reality that we've been here before, Oklahoma in command and a win away from the title. Weekly said he would spend tonight, all night if need be, looking for ways to adjust to Ricketts. It was almost word for word what Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said in the same setting a season ago. We know how that ended.
But when the World Series began, Gasso said nobody was going to hand her team a trophy just because it was the favorite. In perhaps their least dominant win, the Sooners looked ready to take it for themselves.