6th inning home run lifts UCLA to Pac-12 championship win over Utah

The Utah softball team huddles before the Pac-12 championship game on Saturday, May 11, 2024.
The Utah softball team huddles before the Pac-12 championship game on Saturday, May 11, 2024. | Eli Rehmer

Sixth-ranked UCLA won the final Pac-12 softball tournament as Sharlize Palacios hit a go-ahead home run in the sixth inning to defeat Utah 2-1 on Saturday night.

It was a defensive battle for the majority of the night, with every run coming on a solo home run.

Utah pitcher Mariah Lopez pitched a complete game, allowing just four hits and two runs — both of which were solo shots.

Lopez navigated her way out of a couple of tough situations throughout the night. In the third inning, she left two stranded and in the fourth inning, with a runner on third and one out, she struck out Ramsey Suarez, then induced a ground out from Thessa Malau’ulu to get out of the inning unscathed.

“She was incredible. I wish we could have put some hits together and scored some more runs for her because she threw one of the best games I’ve seen her throw in her career,” Utah coach Amy Hogue said.

UCLA pitchers Kaitlyn Terry and Taylor Tinsley were masterful, allowing just three hits and a solo home run.

“They were getting us to swing at balls. We’ve shot ourselves in the foot one too many times in the season with that same issue, and she did a nice job,” Hogue said.

“If she doesn’t have to throw strikes to get us out then she won’t, and so she kept getting us to chase balls and we weren’t disciplined enough to adjust and so we got three hits and that’s just not going to be enough.”

The Bruins struck first in the bottom of the second inning after Jordan Woolery got all of an off-speed Lopez pitch, smacking a home run over the center-field wall.

The Utes broke through in the top of the fifth inning on a two-out solo home run from pinch-hitter Karlie Davison, who took Terry deep to left-centerfield to knot the game at 1-1.

“I was really proud of Karlie to let go a real tough pitch in the first pitch in that at-bat with something that a lot of us were swinging at. She let it go and worked her way into a count that was a real good count to get a good pitch to hit and she hit it, so she did a nice job just earning that pitch and then obviously hitting it,” Hogue said.

After holding the Bruins scoreless in the bottom of the fifth inning — after the leadoff batter reached on an error, Lopez retired the next three batters — the Utes went down one-two-three in the top of the sixth.

Facing a 3-2 count, Palacios sent Lopez’s payoff pitch over the left field wall as the Bruins regained the lead.

“I think that she is a hitter that you have to throw every pitch, a full mix of pitches to her. She adjusted on a pitch that I think hit a good spot, so you just have to tip your cap to that hitter in that situation,” Hogue said.

Down to their last three outs, Utah’s Sophie Jacquez, Julia Jimenez and Shonty Passi were retired in order by Tinsley as the Bruins piled onto the circle to celebrate winning the final Pac-12 softball tournament.

With an RPI of 40 entering Sunday’s NCAA tournament selection show (5 p.m. MDT, ESPN2), a series win against then-No. 9 Washington to close out the regular season and wins over No. 22 Oregon and No. 8 Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament bolstered Utah’s resume.

“We needed every bit of those to position ourselves and yeah, we’ll be ready to travel somewhere and hopefully make a nice run into the postseason,” Hogue said.

The Utes should be comfortably in the NCAA tournament, which would be their second consecutive appearance. Last year, the Utes went to the College World Series for the first time since 1994 after defeating San Diego State in the super regional.