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Monday, May 5, 2008
Wild Westwood showdown serves as warm-up for NCAA tourney

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

The only shame for softball fans trying to soak up a weekend that featured the nation's top four teams playing top conference opponents, including one head-to-head showdown in Westwood, is that it will end up being little more than an appetizer before the main entrée set in less than two weeks.

But if this was a taste of what's to come in Oklahoma City at the end of the month, settle in and enjoy.

No. 1 Arizona State and No. 4 UCLA played the most anticipated series of the week -- and perhaps of the season to date -- with first place in the Pac-10 on the line in Westwood. The split that followed was perhaps unsurprising between two teams now almost certain to be among the top four seeds in the NCAA tournament, but it was nonetheless historic. With its 5-2 win on Sunday, Arizona State clinched the season series against the Bruins for the first time since 1980. Clint Myers' team had already swept three games from archrival Arizona and can clinch its first Pac-10 championship next weekend with three games at home against Cal and Stanford.

Coming off conference player of the week honors for her efforts the previous week, catcher Kristen Miller hit a key home run in the win. An established power source last season, Miller has emerged this season as an all-around hitter. She's another part of the deep lineup that extends beyond Kaitlin Cochran, who hit second or third for the second weekend in a row after spending a large portion of the season in the leadoff spot.

Sunday's game began as a battle of No. 2 pitchers (or No. 3 depending on how you write the depth chart for UCLA's deep staff) between Megan Elliott and Megan Langenfeld. Saturday's opener featured aces Katie Burkhart and Anjelica Selden going head to head, and Selden got the better of the duel with seven innings of two-hit shutout ball. How good has she been this season? On Feb. 10, Selden allowed four earned runs in six innings; she's allowed a total of 15 earned runs in 161.2 subsequent innings.

UCLA also got home runs in both games from junior Amanda Kamekona. The Cal State Fullerton transfer has nearly a quarter (25 of 106) of the team's total doubles and home runs.

On the other side of the country, No. 3 Florida captured its second SEC regular season title with a hard-earned, three-game sweep at No. 12 Tennessee, while No. 2 Alabama completed a long week of travel by taking two of three games at Georgia.

In what might have been Florida's last games on an opponent's home field (unless the Gators meet LSU in the final of the SEC tournament in Baton Rouge), Stacey Nelson looked ready for postseason adversity. Though she worked in and out of trouble for much of her 21 innings during the three games (including seven in relief in the second game), Nelson found a way out of almost all of the jams. And as a 59-2 record suggests, Florida's pitchers have some margin for error this season. Freshman shortstop Megan Bush continued to emerge as a star on the rise, hitting two home runs in the series, while fellow freshman Aja Paculba contributed three hits, three walks and four runs from the No. 2 hole, and junior Ali Gardiner drove in four runs.

Houston vs. Louisiana-Lafayette

Even as teams across the country turned on their closing kicks and sprinted for home in big conference games, some contenders stepped out of the conference fray to test themselves against less familiar foes. Alabama's 26-game winning streak came to a close in one such setting, as DePaul beat both the Tide and Lake Michigan rival Northwestern in a three-team event in Chicago. But an equally interesting clash featured host No. 13 Houston and No. 17 Louisiana-Lafayette splitting a two-game set on Wednesday.

Houston won the first game 2-0 behind a one-hit shutout from Angel Shamblin and an offensive effort that produced eight hits and five walks despite the low run total. Like Alabama, Houston is a patient offensive team -- the Cougars have more walks than strikeouts. They also have plenty of power throughout the lineup to make opposing pitchers pay for all those runners. One of those hitters is Laurie Wagner, who followed up those midweek games against Louisiana-Lafayette with six hits and six RBIs, as Houston wrapped up its conference regular season with three wins against UTEP this weekend. Wagner is hitting .417 with a 1.358 OPS.

If the Cougars take care of business at home as hosts of the Conference USA tournament, they would put themselves in position for a top-eight seed in the NCAA tournament -- meaning they could play at home through regionals and super regionals.

For its part, Louisiana-Lafayette bounced back with a 4-0 win in the second game of the doubleheader at Houston, despite playing both games without leading hitter Holly Tankersley. Freshman Ashley Brignac allowed four hits and no walks on her way to a shutout win. She also struck out 10, marking her 14th double-digit strikeout effort of the season.

Bubble watch

It's the time of year to talk about bubbles. With the bracket for the NCAA tournament less than a week from release, teams across the country will spend the next few days sweating, regardless of what the local weather forecast promises. Thirty automatic bids and 34 at-large bids are at stake, and any discussion of the bubble must begin by figuring out which teams are on it. Below are my own best guesses of which teams are safe, relatively safe and squarely on the bubble. The list does not include teams currently in first place and thus projected -- for now -- to claim automatic bids.

(Michigan and Northwestern tied for the Big Ten regular-season title; Northwestern won the coin toss to host the conference tournament as the No. 1 seed, so Michigan is listed as the at-large candidate below.)

Safe: Alabama, Arizona, Cal, DePaul, Fresno State, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Mississippi State, Missouri, Oklahoma, Stanford, Tennessee, UCLA, Virginia Tech, Washington

Relatively safe: Auburn, BYU, Central Florida, Florida State, Hawaii, Iowa, Purdue, Texas

Bubble: Arkansas, Baylor, Cal State Fullerton, Connecticut, Drake, Florida Atlantic, Georgia State, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Illinois State, Iowa State, Kansas, Louisville, Loyola Marymount, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, NC State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Ohio State, Oregon, Oregon State, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Radford, Southern Illinois, Tulsa, UCSB, Utah

If the teams listed as safe or relatively safe do secure at-large bids, it would leave 10 at-large bids to be spread among the bubble teams. Of course, first-place teams worthy of at-large bids from leagues projected to get only one bid -- such as Creighton, Massachusetts or Hofstra -- could make the bubble even more crowded by Sunday.

Moving up

Arkansas: While Alabama and Florida battled indirectly for the regular season title, arguably no SEC team made more of the weekend than Arkansas. Desperate for even one win against No. 23 Mississippi State, the Lady Razorbacks instead came up with a pair of wins and their second series victory in SEC play. Miranda Dixon was the star in the 7-6 clincher on Sunday, hitting a three-run home run in the bottom of the sixth, then shutting the door on a Mississippi State rally after coming in as a reliever in the top of the seventh.

Even with the wins, Arkansas will miss the conference tournament with an 8-20 league mark. But with an RPI of No. 39 entering the series, Jamie Pinkerton's team at least left the selection committee with reason to consider it for the bigger field of 64.

Utah: Without a conference tournament in the Mountain West, Utah had to get in its shots at the league leaders while it could. A week after splitting two games at home against San Diego State, the Utes rallied for an extra-inning win against BYU for a split of Saturday's doubleheader. Brittany Parker picked up the win in relief for Utah, but Ashley Smuda did the heavy lifting with 7.2 innings of work. In the past three weeks, Smuda is 3-0 with a 1.42 ERA in her team's four wins against MWC heavyweights BYU and San Diego State.

Amy Hogue's team still has its work cut out for it after entering the weekend with an RPI of 73. Realistically, the Utes may need to sweep all six of this week's road games against Utah Valley State, New Mexico and Colorado State.

Fullerton: The Big West has a good record when it comes to multiple bids for the NCAA tournament, but just how many are on the line in next weekend's series between second-place Cal State Fullerton and third-place Cal-Santa Barbara? With wins on its résumé against Arizona, Oklahoma and UCLA, Fullerton has what seems like an ironclad case for an at-large bid  if the Titans can get that case in front of the selection committee.

The flip side of the tough schedule that produced those signature wins is that Fullerton enters the final weekend needing at least one win to avoid a losing record for the season. Of course, the picture looks a whole lot better than it did before Fullerton took two games against first-place Long Beach State over the weekend.

Long Beach State freshman standout Brooke Turner gave her team a win in the series opener, but Fullerton freshman Christine Hiner made her own statement in a 2-1 win in the second game. Though she didn't record a strikeout, Hiner limited the 49ers to one run on five hits in seven innings, keeping her team in the game while awaiting the rally that finally came in the seventh. Jessica Doucette took over in the finale on Sunday, throwing a three-hitter in Fullerton's 3-0 win.

Minnesota: The Gophers hadn't swept a two-game set in the Big Ten in a month, but they picked a good time to break that string. Two wins at Wisconsin locked up a winning conference record and fourth place entering next week's Big Ten tournament. Pitcher Briana Hassett was the star on Saturday, going the distance with 16 strikeouts in an 11-inning 4-0 win, but the Gophers needed no such drama in a 14-4 win on Sunday. That run production was the most in any game this season for Minnesota and the most since early in the 2004 season. On the downside, the Gophers entered the weekend with one of the worst RPI rankings along bubble teams at No. 72 -- eighth among Big Ten teams.

Moving down

Mississippi: The Rebels landed a spot in the SEC tournament when LSU swept three games from South Carolina, but they were unable to capitalize on an opportunity they created in the race for the postseason. Originally looking at a weekend off before the conference tournament, Mississippi added a two-game trip to Louisiana Tech to replace two games against Louisville and Nebraska that had been lost to weather earlier in the season.

Had they won both games, the Rebels would have entered the NCAA tournament selection process no worse than .500, even in the event of a quarterfinal loss in the conference tournament. Sophomore Lauren Grill certainly did her part, collecting six hits in seven at-bats during the doubleheader, but the Rebels dropped the first game 5-4 in eight innings. To their credit, they bounced back from that disappointment with a 3-0 win in the second game behind a combined shutout from pitchers Becky Nye and Tara Willitt.

But without an upset against Florida on Thursday, Mississippi's season will be over.

Notre Dame: Take your pick of Big East teams that found themselves slipping and sliding on the bubble this weekend. (Louisville also lost two games at fellow bubble resident Connecticut.) Notre Dame looked to be in good shape when play began, ranked No. 44 in the RPI and in position to lock down a third-place finish in the regular season with wins. Instead, the Fighting Irish backed into third with splits at Pittsburgh and at Syracuse. Any team with Brittney Bargar -- who posted outstanding numbers in the two wins but was also on the hook for the two losses -- is one of the best 64 teams in the country. But at 12-8 in their past 20 games, the Fighting Irish can't afford much of a letdown at the conference tournament in Louisville if they want an invite to the real deal.

Maryland: Georgia Tech had the weekend off in the ACC and had the best weekend among the league's bubble teams. NC State dropped three games on the road at Florida State, but that was perhaps a less disastrous trip than Maryland's visit to Boston College. The Terrapins dropped two of three against the Eagles, leaving both teams tied for sixth place in advance of next week's college tournament in College Park. Maryland built a strong early résumé with wins against Michigan, Massachusetts and Central Florida during the season's opening month, but Sunday's win in the series finale in Boston was just the team's second win in its past eight games and sixth win in its past 18 games.

NCAA tournament berths

Quick credit to Princeton and Sacramento State for clinching berths in the NCAA tournament, joining Mississippi Valley State. Princeton beat Harvard in the Ivy League playoff, while Sacramento State swept four games from San Diego -- including a 29-4 barrage in Sunday's two wins -- to pass Loyola Marymount and Saint Mary's in the Pacific Coast Softball Conference.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.