FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Top-seeded Tennessee utilized its strong bats to take down No. 5 seed Alabama with three home runs in its 7-6 semifinal win, marking the Lady Vols' fourth SEC Tournament Championship appearance.
The Crimson Tide came on the field fired up, hitting two singles and drawing two walks to score their first run, 1-0. They would score three more off a wild pitch, tagging up on a foul fly out and a fielder's choice, 4-0, before Tennessee could close out the first frame.
Despite retiring the first two batters in the bottom of the first, Alabama couldn't hang on to the lead as the Lady Vols loaded the bases with a two-out double and back-to-back walks before Lair Beautae evened the score with one swing, 4-4, smashing a grand slam on the first pitch of her at bat.
"I owe it to my team," Beautae said about tying the game with her grand slam. "I just let them know that we're here to win and this is our game. I was just trying to keep it simple. I didn't know it was going to go out like that.
Tennessee jumped ahead with a solo shot by Kiki Milloy in the second, 5-4, before Katie Taylor tacked on a homer of her own, scoring two more in the fourth frame, 7-4.
Larissa Preuitt and Ashley Prange paired up in the fifth inning with a leadoff single and a two-run homer, respectively, to bring the Tide within one, 7-6, before the Lady Vols shut the door. Neither team would score again as their pitchers and defense stood strong, finalizing the semifinal decision and sending Tennessee to the championship game.
Payton Gotshall came in clutch for the Lady Vols, entering the circle in the first with the bases loaded, no outs and two runs already scored. She her way out of the inning and went on to pitch the entire game, striking out five and only walking one while allowing five hits.
"We are just a family. We are just out here playing to have fun," Beautae said. "We have a mission and we're trying to accomplish it. As long as we're on the same train, the train is going to keep going.
The Tide rotated pitchers throughout the matchup with starter Alex Salter taking the loss after tossing two innings and facing 11 batters while striking out one and giving up three hits and two walks including two homers. In the beginning of the third frame, Jaala Torrence took over and went one to face 14 batters throughout 3.1 innings. She gave up three hits and three walks while striking out three. Lauren Esman finished things off for the Tide, entering in the middle of the sixth inning to face the final two batters, striking out one.
Although the Lady Vols only recorded five hits, they were able to make quite the impact as three of those hits left the stadium.
Tennessee enters the championship game with two previous titles (2006 and 2011) and three tournament final appearances, the latest in 2015 when they fell short to Auburn, all of which occurred under Karen Weekly's tenure. The Lady Vols are 32-26 in their all-time SEC tournament record.
"It will mean everything," Beautae said about potentially winning the SEC Tournament. "It's what we've been working all season for. Just to bring that home back with us is just showing is that we're ready for the next step, which is the World Series.
Alabama was seeking its seventh SEC Tournament title and 10th tournament final appearance before being eliminated in the semifinals by Tennessee.
How It Happened
T1 | Alabama wasted no time as Jenna Johnson led off with a line drive single up the middle and Preuitt hit a chopper to Mackenzie Donihoo at shortstop that couldn't quite be fielded in time to get the out. Karlyn Pickens started to crack under the pressure, walking the next two batters as the Tide scored their first run. A wild pitch brought in another run before Pickens walked Cahalan to load the bases once again, leading to a pitching change. Ally Shipman popped up in foul territory as third baseman Zaida Puni hustled in to make the catch. Despite Puni's great play, the Tide were able to score after the catch as she ended up in the dugout and couldn't manage a throw while they advanced. A groundout to the right side would bring in Bama's last run of the first frame before Gottshall sent Kali Heivilin down swinging. Alabama 4, Tennessee 0
B1 | Seemingly unfazed by the four-run deficit, Tennessee made a quick rebound. After a quick two outs, McKenna Gibson riled things up with a double to the wall in center field. In a sudden turn of events, the bases were loaded as Salter walked the next two batters. The crowd was filled with anticipation and excitement as Beautae stepped into the batter's box, her long ball reputation preceding her. Beautae launched the first pitch of her at bat, evening the score with once swing as her grand slam past the left field fence cleared the bases. Giulia Koutsoyanopulos almost followed suit, but leftfielder Riley West sprinted to the fence, leaping up to rob her of the home run just in time to end the inning. Alabama 4, Tennessee 4
B2 | After the Lady Vols escaped the Tide's offensive threats in the top of the second, Milloy took things into her own hands. She crushed a no-doubter over the fans behind left field, supplying Tennessee with the lead while marking her fourth straight game with a home run. Tennessee 5, Alabama 4
T3 | Cahalan almost matched Milloy's leadoff efforts as she sent one deep into left field, but it feel just short of the fence as leftfielder West caught it on the run. Shipman then dropped down a single in left center, but Tennessee turned a smooth 1-4-3 double play to shut out the Tide. Tennessee 5, Alabama 4
B4 | The Lady Vols proved just how talented their lineup is from top to bottom as their number nine hitter Katie Taylor went yard. Jamison Brockenbrough had singled to left field with two outs before Taylor hit them both in, providing some insurance with her third homer of the season and first since mid-March. Tennessee 7, Alabama 4
T5 | However, the Tide continued to flash their own long ball skills as Preuitt hit a leadoff single and Prange blasted an absolute rocket to the parking lot past left field, bringing them within one. Gotshall gathered herself, sitting Bailey Dowling down looking before Cahalan and Shipman each squared one up toward center but centerfielder Milloy made both catches to cut off the comeback attempt. Tennessee 7, Alabama 6
Each team went on to execute some impressive displays of dominant defense including a double play by Tennessee third baseman Puni as she snatched a hot shot line drive up the line and her throw beat the runner back to first to close the sixth inning along with multiple diving catches in shallow right field by Alabama second baseman Heivilin.
Gotshall eliminated any thoughts of a seventh-inning rally with strikeouts for the first and third outs of the final frame, executing three straight outs to finalize the 7-6 win.
On non-homerun hitters going yard..."It's just our mindset. We trusted our process and we just kept everything together. We have our affirmations in the dugout. We just kept reminding each other why we are here and what is keeping us together."
On her personal affirmation... "I'm made for this. That's my affirmation. I'm made for this and the little things keep us together."
Tennessee (41-8, 19-5 SEC) will face 10-seed South Carolina (36-19, 9-15 SEC) in the SEC Tournament Championship on Saturday, May 13 at 2 p.m. CT as televised on ESPN.
Alabama (40-17, 14-10 SEC) is eliminated from the tournament and awaits the NCAA Selection Show on Sunday night. The bracket for the NCAA Tournament will be released at 6 p.m. CT on ESPN2.