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UCF softball beats USF, clinches 3rd straight appearance in AAC title game

A 2-run home run by Chloe Evans in the first inning was enough to lift UCF softball past rival South Florida in the AAC tournament semifinals Friday afternoon in Tampa.

The No. 2 seed Knights relied on their defense and the arm of ace Sarah Willis to deliver a 2-0 win over the No. 3 seed Bulls, earning Cindy Ball-Malone‘s squad a spot in the conference championship on Saturday.

It’s UCF’s third straight appearance in the AAC tournament-title game as the program looks to repeat as champion.

Willis, who was named the league’s pitcher of the year earlier in the week, pitched a complete game and allowed just 4 hits while striking out 4 batters with a pair of walks.

“I just go out there and I give 100% of what I’ve got every time,” Willis told ESPN after the game. “I know my team’s got my back.”

That statement held true against the Bulls as she was backed by the infield play of Jasmine Williams, who was key in turning three double plays late in the game, including one in the top of the 7th that ended the War on I-4 matchup.

“Honestly all of the infielders doing their job, like rolling those double plays, is amazing,” Willis said. “The outfielders, too, doing their job and working with Carson [Frier], she is great behind the plate.”

USF had runners in scoring position in the fifth and sixth innings but couldn’t bring them home. UCF’s infielders turned a double play in the fifth before Frier caught a USF runner attempting to steal third base in the sixth.

“It’s just working with everybody all around to have a sound defense,” Willis said.

The victory is UCF’s 12th straight over the Bulls and sets up a title matchup against No. 4 seed Tulsa on Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN2) at the USF Softball Stadium.

The Golden Hurricane upset No. 1 seed Wichita State 2-1 in 8 innings in Friday’s first semifinal. With the loss, the Shockers became the first regular-season champion to not advance to the tournament final in conference history.

Although the Knights won’t meet Wichita State in the title game, Willis knows Tulsa won’t go down easy. The Golden Hurricane won the conference tournament in 2016, ’17 and ’18 after falling to the Knights in ’15.

Now UCF has its chance to repeat as AAC champion and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.

“Just treat it like any other game,” Willis said when asked what’s important for UCF against Tulsa. “Obviously it’s defending a title but just treat it like any other game — just coming out, throwing strikes, hitting the pitches we need to hit and not taking our foot off the gas pedal.”

Email Jason Beede at jbeede@orlandosentinel.com or follow him on Twitter at @therealBeede.