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Harper’s homer, Denham’s shutout lead Arizona softball past Oregon to split 4-game series

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Jessie Harper hit a historic two-run homer and Alyssa Denham threw a six-hit shutout as No. 7 Arizona blanked No. 12 Oregon 2-0 on Sunday in Eugene to salvage a four-game split.

The Wildcats won the final two games of the series after dropping the first two in disheartening fashion. They now enter the final week of the regular season in a much more reasonable spot, likely needing a couple wins against No. 2 UCLA to secure a coveted top-8 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

“We were grinding and pressing a little bit,” head coach Mike Candrea said on the Pac-12 Network. “It felt like we had a hole in our bat, but they hang in there. That’s one thing about this group—they keep plugging away and keep trying to make adjustments and every day is a new day.”

And on a day where timely hits were at a premium, Harper came through in the clutch. Her third-inning, opposite field blast produced the game’s only runs. It was the 89th homer of her career, the fourth-most in NCAA history. She’s now just one homer shy of Stacey Nuveman for third place, three shy of Katiyana Mauga for second, and six shy of Lauren Chamberlain’s all-time record (95).

Harper also had two singles on the day, finishing with five hits in the series, a bright spot for an offense that only produced seven runs in four games.

“The thing I like about her right now is she’s getting her eyes a little deeper than she was,” Candrea said. “When she hits the ball to right-center field, you know she’s seeing it well, so that’s a good sign.”

Arizona (35-10, 12-7) and Oregon (33-15, 11-10) had plenty of other chances to score but couldn’t come through. They hit a combined 0 for 11 with runners in scoring position, what’s been a problem for Arizona against ranked teams all season.

The Wildcats couldn’t solve Brooke Yanez. The Oregon ace pitched 4.1 scoreless innings after relieving Samaria Diaz after Harper’s homer. For the series, Yanez allowed just one run in 18.1 innings of work while racking up 24 strikeouts.

Denham had similar series numbers, permitting one run in 15 innings of work. She stranded two runners in the first, second, and fifth innings. In the second, Denham walked the No. 9 hitter to put runners on the corners for the red-hot Haley Cruse. She flew out to end the threat.

Cruse later singled in the fifth to put two runners on, but Denham fanned No. 3 hitter Terra McGowan with a changeup to prevent any damage.

Cruse singled again in the seventh to put the tying run at the plate with two outs. Denham got Allee Bunker to bounce a weak grounder to Harper to end the series.

“She keeps them off balance,” Candrea said of Denham. “I’m sitting there, we walk the nine-hitter to face Cruse, and I’m going, ‘Oh my God, what are you doing?’ I guess she knows better than I do. It worked.”