OKLAHOMA CITY -- Everyone knows about Kiki Milloy, Zaidi Puni and the middle of the fearsome Tennessee softball lineup, and they too played their parts well in a 10-5 win over Alabama in the Women's College World Series on Thursday.
But for the real 4-seed Lady Vol "heroes" as they overwhelmed the 5-seed Crimson Tide in the all-SEC opener to the 2023 WCWS, you had to look a little further down in the UT box score.
So said Tennessee coach Karen Weekly after the bottom four hitters in her starting lineup -- Jamison Brockenbrough, Giulia Koutsoyanopulos, Destiny Rodriguez and Katie Taylor -- combined for six hits, including a double and a home run, four runs scored and six RBI on Oge Energy Field at the USA Softball Hall of Fame Complex.
"I just told them in the locker room, we've been talking about this, the mark of a good team, a team that can compete for championships is the bottom of the order," Weekly said. "Everyone is going to have studs at the top of the order. But it's those kids that don't get the publicity, their name's not always in the headline, what do they do?
"My gosh, you look at the bottom of our order, you had (six) hits out of 6, 7, 8, 9, and a home run and a double. I mean, they sparked us. They were the heroes."
It was the highest-scoring game in Tennessee's WCWS history, as the Lady Vols earned their ninth consecutive victory in their first appearance in Oklahoma City since 2015.
UT struck early and often, going up 4-0 after sending eight batters to the plate in the bottom of the second inning. And it was the bottom of the order that ignited it.
Koutsoyanopulos, the No. 7 hitter, started the two-out rally with an infield single to third, beating the throw to first after Alabama third baseman Ashley Prange appeared to have trouble getting the ball out of her glove. Rodriguez, batting eighth, singled to center, and No. 9 hitter Katie Taylor followed that with a double to deep right center, scoring both Koutsoyanopulos and Rodriguez.
Bama then elected to intentionally walk the dangerous Kiki Milloy, who entered the game with a NCAA-leading 25 home runs on the season. But the Tide immediately paid a price for that when the next batter, Puni, ripped another double to left center, scoring both Taylor and Milloy to make it 4-0 Tennessee.
Milloy said she had a premonition, based on strong previous evidence, that Puni would punish Alabama for bypassing Milloy to face her.
"Whenever they intentionally walk me, I'm like, 'I don't know if that's the best move because Zaida is going to come up.' Every time they walk me, I feel like she's done something to manufacture a run," Milloy said. "That's a tough decision to make as the other team, but I just have so much trust in her."
The Crimson Tide wasted no time in responding, however, staging a two-out rally of their own in the top of the third.
With one out, Ashley Prange walked. After Jenna Johnson lined out to shortstop for the second out, Bailey Dowling walked, placing runners on first and second. Ally Shipman then lofted a singled to shallow left just out of the reach of Tennessee shortstop Mackenzie Donihoo, scoring Prange and advancing to Dowling to third while Shipman advanced to second herself on the throw. Kenleigh Cahalan then ripped a sharp grounder to first that hit the bag and popped high in the air for an unusual single that scored Dowling, drawing the Tide to within 4-2.
But the Lady Vols kept hitting. They extended their lead to four at 6-2 on a two-run homer by No. 6 hitter Jamison Brockenbrough in the third and added four more runs in the fourth, with three coming in on a blast by Rylie West that made it 10-2.
"I honestly was just trying to get a good pitch," West said. "I told Karen (Weekly) before my at-bat that I'm just going to put the ball in the outfield because (pinch runner) Brylee (Mesusan) was on third and she's really fast. I was just trying to hit the ball hard somewhere deep in the outfield so she could score. So it was just a pretty simple process, and I got a good pitch, and I went for it."
Although Alabama scored twice in the top of the fifth to cut it to 10-4 and avoid a run-rule decision, that was only delaying the inevitable. The game was over.
West, Rodriguez and Taylor each had a pair of hits for Tennessee, which had eight different players score runs.
Ashley Rogers started in the circle for the Lady Vols and earned the win after going the first four innings, giving up two runs on three hits and three walks with one strikeout. She improved to 19-1 on the season.
Jaala Torrence took the loss for Alabama. After pitching lights out earlier in the NCAA Tournament for the Tide, Torrence struggled against the formidable Lady Vols' lineup, giving up seven hits and five runs before leaving the game after just 2.1 innings.
Johnson and Cahalan contributed two hits apiece for Alabama, which also got a solo homer from freshman pinch hitter Marlie Giles in the top of the sixth that made it 10-5.
"It's good to get that first game under our belt and get a 'W,' " Weekly said. "This time of year, that's what it's all about. Just get wins."
HOW IT HAPPENED
B2 | After the first two batters were retired, Tennessee staged a four-run, two-out rally. .Koutsoyanopulos reached on infield single to third. Rodriguez singled to center, advancing Koutsoyanopulos to third. Taylor doubled to deep right center, scoring both Koutsoyanopulos and Rodriguez scored. Milloy was intentionally walked. Puni doubled to deep left center, scoring Taylor and Milloy. Tennessee 4, Alabama 0.
T3 | With one out, Prange walked. Johnson lined out to shortstop for the second out. Dowling walked, placing runners on first and second. Shipman singled to left, scoring Prange and advancing to Dowling to third while Shipman advanced to second herself on the throw. Cahalan's sharp grounder to first hit the bag and popped high in the air for an unusual single that scored Dowling. Tennessee 4, Alabama 2.
B3 | West reached on an error. Donihoo singled to right center, but was thrown out at second trying to advance as West scampered to third. Brockenbrough lifted a two-run homer to center, driving Alabama starter Jaala Torrence from the game in favor of reliever Alex Salter. Tennessee 6, Alabama 2.
B4 | Taylor opened the inning with a single to right. Milloy grounded into a fielder's choice to shortstop, with Taylor out at second. Puni walked, and McKenna Gibson doubled to right, scoring Milloy. West launched a three-run homer to left, scoring pinch runners Mesusan and Shakira Goodloe, and driving Salter from the game in favor of the third Alabama pitcher, Lauren Esman. Tennessee 10, Alabama 2.
T5 | With Payton Gottshall in to pitch for Tennessee after one out was recorded, Johnson and Dowling laced back-to-back singles. Shipman grounded into a fielder's choice to shortstop, with Hensley out at second and Johnson advancing to third. Cahalan doubled to left, scoring Johnson and Shipman. Tennessee 10, Alabama 4.
T6 | Pinch hitter Marlie Giles hit a solo homer just inside the left-field foul pole. Tennessee 10, Alabama 5.
Tennessee (50-9) advanced in the winner's bracket to face 1-seed Oklahoma (57-1), who extended its NCAA record to 49 consecutive wins with a 2-0 shutout of Stanford in the contest that immediately followed the UT-Bama game. The Lady Vols will get a day off and will face the Sooners on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET in a tilt that will be televised by ABC.
Alabama (45-21) will face Stanford (45-14) in a 7 p.m. ET elimination game on Friday. It will be televised on ESPN.