The Arizona Wildcats are heading to Super Regionals for the seventh time in eight years.
Aleah Craighton hit a go-ahead RBI single in the fifth and Taylor McQuillin tossed 5.2 scoreless innings in relief as the 14th-seeded Wildcats came back to beat Mississippi State 4-3 in the regional final.
Arizona went unbeaten in the Tucson Regional, taking down Saint Francis, North Dakota State, then Mississippi State.
The Wildcats will now face No. 3 seed UCLA on the road in Super Regionals, with a Women’s College World Series appearance on the line.
“It was a great victory, obviously this time of the year that’s the bottom line,” Arizona head coach Mike Candrea said. “It didn’t quite go as I drew it up, but I thought Taylor was just outstanding when she had to come into the game and was really the key factor.”
Candrea decided Saturday night that he was going to start Alyssa Denham for the first time this postseason, but Mississippi State, the designated home team, jumped on her early.
SEC Freshman of the Year Mia Davidson and Sarai Niu cranked back-to-back solo homers in the first to give the Bulldogs a quick lead.
“I really felt that Denham could take care of business, but today she just got the ball up in the zone and paid for it,” Candrea said.
Arizona immediately answered with three runs in the second to take the lead. Singles by Dejah Mulipola and Craighton and a hit by pitch to Ivy Davis loaded the bases for Malia Martinez with none out.
She struck out on four pitches, but Jenna Kean drew a six-pitch walk, then Ashleigh Hughes looped a single to center to score two.
Candrea was proud of his team’s resiliency.
“If that would’ve happened two months ago, they would probably hit the panic button,” he said.
“But they are starting to grow from that and understand that, yeah, we’re going to give up some runs. But you know what, we just need to have quality at bats. Even if you’re going to make an out and make sure it’s unproductive out. Those are the little things that I think they’re getting better at.”
McQuillin started getting loose after MSU’s homers, but Denham returned to the circle in the second.
The results were similar — Carmen Carter roped a homer to left to knot the game at 3.
Denham walked the next batter, which finally prompted Candrea to summon McQuillin from the bullpen. The left-hander immediately induced a line-drive double play to end the inning.
It was the first time in seven starts that Denham had surrendered more than two runs.
“Alyssa Denham has thrown some great games for us this year and I really felt like we had an opportunity there to kind of protect ourselves in case anything happens but I knew I was going to have a short lease and after the third home run and a walk, it was time to shut things down,” Candrea said. “And I felt like we were going to score a few more runs because we were seeing (Mississippi State starter Holly Ward) very well.”
Arizona had a chance to re-take the lead in the third after Mulipola and Craighton singled again, but Martinez struck out and Davis grounded out to end the frame.
Jessie Harper and Mulipola ignited a UA rally in the fifth with a one-out single and walk, which set the scene for Craighton’s go-ahead RBI single, a liner into left-center.
Arizona still had two runners in scoring position and a chance to add an insurance run, but Ward got Martinez and Davis to ground out to escape the jam.
Ward surrendered 10 hits in her final college game.
The Wildcats threatened again with two infield singles in the sixth, but to no avail.
Not that it mattered — McQuillin finished the regional without allowing a single run. The left-hander tossed 19.2 scoreless innings across three games, earning the win in each one.
McQuillin retired the first 14 batters she faced Sunday, before a leadoff walk in the seventh snapped that streak.
Still, she faced 17 batters, got 17 outs, and only needed 57 pitches to do it.
“My team had worked so hard to get three runs, I had to make sure that I could shut the other team down so they could go out and continue the job and not be as stressed or tense in the box,” McQuillin said.
She did that, and her teammates thanked her by dousing her with Powerade after the game.
“I’m out here looking like a wet dog now,” McQuillin joked. “Yeah, it was a little cold and unexpected, but it’s good feeling. It means the team has my back.”
It was an entirely different scene from a relief appearance McQuillin had at Hillenbrand Stadium last year, when she served up a game-winning homer against Baylor that devastatingly ended UA’s season one win shy of the Women’s College World Series.
McQuillin is reminded of that a lot. Her pitching shows she has moved on.
“It’s unfortunate the way we ended last year,” McQuillin said, “but last year is in the past and this year’s a new year and our team is really excited where we’re at now.”
The way she’s throwing, it’s hard not to be.
“The storyline obviously is Taylor McQuillin,” Candrea said. “I think she’s grown a lot mentally. Sometimes you have to go through the trials and tribulations of this game. It makes you stronger. And I think finally she’s starting to understand what she’s got to do to stay in control of herself in tough situations.
“And today she was the pitcher that I thought she would be when we recruited her.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire