2017 Women’s College World Series — Paige Lowary, Shay Knighten star in Oklahoma’s historic Game 1 win over Florida

The Sooners finally stopped the Gators’ bats, after losing the lead twice in the bottom of the inning with two outs, to take Game 1 over Florida in the Women’s College World Series.

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Few had moved from their seats, but most were eyeing the exit. With the day’s light still fading into night in the bottom of the seventh inning, a record crowd was on its feet inside Hall of Fame Stadium. They were ready to cheer the final out, the final strike, that would put local favorite Oklahoma one win from defending the championship it won here a year ago.

They were still there five innings and nearly two hours later, again on their feet with cameras at the ready to capture the final out of a win. One more strike again all that was needed.

Again they sat down. Again they settled in for more softball.

But they were still there in the left-field bleachers to rise to their feet when Shay Knighten hit a ball out there in the top of the 17th inning. And with two strikes and two outs in the bottom of the inning, they stood one final time when Paige Lowary threw the pitch that brought to a close one of the wildest nights in softball. More than five hours after she threw her first pitch.

Only then did the Sooners finally let them leave.

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Paige Lowary got the surprise start, then the surprise relief appearance. All told she threw 139 pitches and got the win.

In the longest game in the history of the championship round of the Women’s College World Series, only one game in any round longer in the 35-year history of the event, No. 10 Oklahoma beat No. 1 Florida 7-5 in 17 innings. A win Tuesday night in Game 2 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) clinches the title for the Sooners.

“I just will never forget this game as long as I live,” said Oklahoma freshman Nicole Mendes, whose home run and mesmerizing outfield assist would have made her the star any another day. “I don’t think I will ever play in a game like this again. It was an honor to be a part of.”

The numbers make little sense, the scale all wrong. The teams combined to throw 496 pitches. They recorded 122 at-bats and used 31 players. It lasted 5 hours, 28 minutes.

Oklahoma struck out 26 times.

And that was the winning team.

Although on this night, it is difficult to make the case that either team was better. One just had to win so that both could get some sleep before they played again.

Twice Florida rallied to tie the game when down to its final strike. Sophia Reynoso brought the Gators level in the seventh inning when what looked like a sure third out dropped between outfielders who were playing deep. Amanda Lorenz tied the game with a two-out double in the bottom of the 12th.

Both could have been the heroes. Both became footnotes. There were a lot of footnotes.

It wasn’t a night when anyone on the field could hope to be perfect. Like Knighten and Lowary, the starting pitcher and closer on the same night, all any of those involved could hope to do was make the most of the last opportunity that came their way. To not regret that one.

“It was highs and lows,” Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said. “For Paige Lowary, especially, to finish on the note that she did is, to me, the highlight of our season.”

Gasso didn’t show her cards when it came to a tactical explanation for starting Lowary, the first-year transfer from Missouri who hadn’t started in more than a month and had settled in as the team’s closer, instead of Paige Parker, the most statistically successful pitcher in World Series history. The coach said that with Florida starting national player of the year Kelly Barnhill, she felt like matching up hard thrower against hard thrower in hopes of throwing the Gators off balance. Maybe it was as simple as that. But it was a show of faith in a pitcher who wasn’t a part of the Sooners at this time a season ago. Someone who was adrift in more ways than that.

Early last season, while pitching for Missouri, Lowary was struck in the face by a line drive. She missed amazingly little time, but said she lived in fear of the middle of the plate for a long time. Her walks soared as she tried to put the ball anywhere but where it might get hit hard.

When she decided to transfer after the season, she looked at plenty of schools where she could have been the unquestioned ace. She chose one where she wouldn’t be, not with Parker returning as the reigning World Series Most Outstanding Player.

“I started to weigh my options and I decided I would rather be a part of a pitching staff,” Lowary said. “I’ve been through it when I’ve had to do it all myself and pitch a lot of the games. It’s really tiring and kind of stressful. You don’t really have someone that can come in when you’re having a bad game. That’s what I was looking for. Having Paige and Mariah [Lopez], it’s awesome because we’re all really good, we all can come in for each other and we all have each other’s back. It’s really fun. It’s just a great bond.”

She matched Barnhill scoreless inning for scoreless inning Monday before the Gators took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the fourth. Oklahoma back in front 2-1 entering the bottom of the sixth, she handed the ball to Parker and went to cheer on the friend with whom she shares an artistic bent and with whom she helped design a poster that hung in the team’s dugout in Norman.

When Gasso sent her to the bullpen and then quickly called for her with two outs in the bottom of the 12th and Oklahoma ahead 4-2, Lowary and Parker traded spots yet again. But on a 1-2 pitch, Lorenz doubled to left center and brought home two runners to tie the game. Parker out of the lineup for good and only freshmen as alternatives, the rest of the night was Lowary’s.

Still pitching in the 17th with the bases loaded, she limited Lorenz to a sacrifice fly. Maybe she got away with a pitch that was too close on another 1-2 count, maybe not. But she then struck out Kayli Kvistad to finally, mercifully end the game. She totaled 10⅓ innings on the night.

“I just wanted to hit my spot,” Lowary said of the final strikeout. “I visualized her swinging over it, and it went where it needed to go.”

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Shay Knighten is greeted by her teammates in the top of the 17th inning after hitting a three-run home run that would win it for Oklahoma.

She had the chance to close out the win only because of what Knighten did against Barnhill earlier in the inning. After Oklahoma left the bases loaded in both the 15th and 16th innings, Knighten came to the plate with two outs and two runners on base in the top of the 17th.

Knighten went hitless in her first four plate appearances, which would have been the sum of her contribution on most any other day. But in the 12th inning, she doubled off Delanie Gourley, the Florida All-American who had allowed only nine doubles all season, and came around to score on Fale Aviu’s home run that briefly put the Sooners ahead. With the game again tied in the 17th inning, she drove a 1-2 pitch from Barnhill several rows deep into the bleachers for a three-run home run. It was just the fifth home run allowed by Barnhill all season.

“I was just looking to find a pitch in the zone I could hit hard,” Knighten said. “I wasn’t looking for a particular pitch. I knew she was throwing hard, so it was just, ‘Get there.’ “

Maintaining sanity through eight plate appearances would be difficult enough without facing two All-Americans who pitch in completely different ways, Barnhill’s power and rise ball replaced by Gourley’s well-disguised off-speed offerings, only for Florida to revert to Barnhill again later. Not to mention staying sane when your last meal was hours in the past. But Knighten persevered.

“You can do this,” Knighten said of her own internal monologue as the innings and plate appearances progressed. “Just stick to your mechanics, stay within yourself, do it for your teammates and try not to be too big, not try to be the hero.”

She managed the first three things on that list when she hit the game-winning home run. The last entry, not so much. She was the hero on a night when everyone had a chance to be.

Trying to recall the specific moment during the game when he told his team he was proud of them, Florida coach Tim Walton couldn’t recall if it was “the eighth or the 21st.” He wasn’t alone. The scoreboard unable to handle all the innings and the sun long since set, all measures of time faded away as inning after inning ticked along. It felt like they might play forever, every move answered in kind. But, of course, it couldn’t last forever. It couldn’t even last until dawn.

“It is all a blur,” Lorenz said. “All I know is we lost. That’s what I know, and I’m really excited for tomorrow. I’m really proud of our fight. Excited to go to sleep and wake up.”

Time moves on. Even if it felt Monday night as if Florida and Oklahoma had stopped it in its tracks.

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