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How San Diego State sent No. 15 Utah to the brink of elimination in the NCAA softball tournament

The Aztecs defeated the Utes 4-3 Friday night at Dumke Stadium.

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Utah pitcher Mariah Lopez, looks toward home plate during a pause in play as the University of Utah softball team plays Ole Miss in NCAA softball regional championship at Utah in Salt Lake City on Sunday, May 21, 2023. Utah won 4-1.

Utah pitcher Mariah Lopez, looks toward home plate during a pause in play as the University of Utah softball team plays Ole Miss in NCAA softball regional championship at Utah in Salt Lake City on Sunday, May 21, 2023. Utah won 4-1.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

No. 15-seeded Utah saw its red-hot bats cool off Friday — and as a result, the Utes find themselves on the brink of elimination in the NCAA softball tournament.

Pitching, defense and timely hitting lifted San Diego State to a 4-3 victory in the first game of a best-of-three Super Regional on a windy, cool night in front of a record crowd of 2,723 at Dumke Stadium.

The Aztecs, who captured their first-ever triumph in a Super Regional Friday, need a win Saturday at 3 p.m. to clinch a berth in the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City next week.

“It feels great right now, but we aren’t done and have one more game to win,” said SDSU third baseman AJ Murphy, who delivered the game-winning RBI double in the fourth inning.

“I think just bouncing back tomorrow and playing like it is a 0-0 series and just going 1-0 tomorrow.”

“I was just really proud of how we handled this stage,” said SDSU coach Stacey Nuveman Deniz. “After we got the jitters out after the first couple of innings, I thought we looked really comfortable, our defense was on point and we did all the things we needed to do in the circle.

“It’s phenomenal to be in the situation that we are in now and we are one win away from Oklahoma City.”

Utah coach Amy Hogue was disappointed in her team’s performance. 

“Well, we didn’t play great today and we have been playing really great, so bad timing to have a bad day out there,” she said.

“There were a lot of good moments, but it got a little tight and my team didn’t play very loose. The moment got a little big and got away from us. We did all those things not so great and still only lost by a run, so I like our opportunities to make our adjustments tomorrow and go get back on that roll that we’ve been on for quite a while.”

SDSU pitchers Allie Light and Dee Dee Hernandez combined to limit the Utes to just five hits on the night.

Light (15-6) gave up two hits and one earned run with two strikeouts and zero walks in four innings of work. Hernandez, who picked up the save, tossed three innings and didn’t surrender a walk or a run to close out the game. 

“They can really swing it. They came out super aggressive and they have been super hot throughout the whole postseason,” Light said about limiting Utah’s offense. “So for me, I would say the success that we had today was straight from defense.

“My job is just to throw strikes in for them to put the ball in play and rely on the girls behind me to take care of the rest and I feel like they did that tonight. One hundred percent the defense today.”

In front of a raucous crowd, the Utes got off to a rough start in the top of the first inning by committing two errors and giving up two unearned runs.

But Utah seized the lead in its half of the second inning, beginning with a Sophie Jacquez double.

Jacquez scored on an error while Abby Dayton advanced to third base, and Dayton tied the game after Haley Denning reached on a bunt.

Shelbi Ortiz’s sacrifice fly scored Dayton to lift the Utes to a 3-2 advantage. 

But in the decisive fourth frame, SDSU went up for good on Murphy’s two-run double. The Aztecs had five hits in that inning, but Utah pitcher Mariah Lopez limited the damage by recording a two-out strikeout with the bases loaded.

Lopez also got out of a jam in the fifth with a bases-loaded strikeout. 

In all, Lopez gave up nine hits, six walks and two earned runs. She also had nine strikeouts. 

“I put my team in a sticky position and I knew we needed to get out of those innings clean in order to give them a better shot to score some runs at bat,” Lopez said.

The Aztecs could have won by a much larger margin but left 11 runners stranded. 

“The game started and both teams were feeling it, feeling the moment, feeling the energy, and it was far from a clean game for the first couple of innings,” said Nuveman Deniz.

“I felt like our group really just found a way to settle in despite the fact that 2,500 fans were rooting against us and it was an atmosphere that we haven’t been in before. Once we got past the second inning, I thought we looked really comfortable and they figured out how to connect to each other and rely on each other in that moment, and not let the moment be too big. Ultimately, I think that was the difference.”

In the seventh and final inning, Dayton singled to left with one out, representing the tying run. But Hernandez struck out Denning and Kendall Lundberg flied out to center to end the game. 

Giving up two runs in the first inning proved costly to the Utes. 

“For us, the game got a little fast early and once we settled in we didn’t make any more errors the rest of the game,” Hogue said.

“We didn’t put the ball in play the way that we are used to and honestly with the amount of runners they had on base, it felt like they were beating us by a whole lot more. We kept it close — Mariah did that. Nine strikeouts in big moments and kept giving our hitters a shot and it wasn’t our day.”

Now, Utah needs a win to keep its remarkable season alive. 

“We talked about it in the locker room that when our backs are against the wall we have done really, really well,” Hogue said.

“I like that and it is absolutely backs-against-the-wall time. The game just needs to completely flip. We need to find our offense again and the game flows from there. It was a rough start and we looked a little tight. The pressure got to us and so tomorrow we need to start hotter and then never stop for two days.”

“I just think we need to be ourselves,” Denning said. “Today we weren’t ourselves and I know I have complete faith and belief in every single one of my teammates that they are going to get the job done tomorrow.

“We still have the confidence even though the outcome wasn’t what we wanted it to be today. That’s softball. Sometimes it happens for you and sometimes it doesn’t. There’s no doubt in my mind that tomorrow I will still have complete faith in my teammates and get the job done.”