NORMAN, Okla. — Tori Cooper drove in two runs and Autumn Russell had three hits Saturday evening, but a seventh-inning rally came up short in a 5-3 loss to Oklahoma in the first elimination game of the NCAA Norman Regional.
Arkansas’ season ends with a 31-24 record and the program’s seventh NCAA Tournament appearance, and its first under Courtney Deifel.
“You saw two teams fighting for their lives tonight,” Deifel said. “You saw it from the first pitch to the very last.
“Both teams put their hearts out there, and in the end, Oklahoma got us tonight, but I can’t say enough how proud I am of this team and not only what they did for this program, but what they’ve done for the staff and for each other.
“It’s a very special group and I love this team. It’s one of those years where you want to play as long as you can because it’s just that special.”
Playing on its home field, Oklahoma (51-9) was the visiting team in Saturday’s elimination game and responded with two runs in the top of the first inning off freshman starter Autumn Storms.
But the Razorbacks answered with three runs in the bottom of the inning, the most allowed by Oklahoma in a first inning this season.
After a Russell single, Loren Krzysko doubled to left center to give Arkansas (31-24) runners on second and third with nobody out. Cooper delivered with a two-run single up the middle to bring both runners home, and pushed her season total to 40 RBI.
With the bases loaded after an intentional walk to Nicole Schroeder, the Razorbacks took a 3-2 lead on a sacrifice fly by Madison Yannetti.
“One of the big things about our team this year has been that we never say die,” Cooper said. “That was reflected in how we responded. There was no doubt in our minds that no matter what they put up, we were going to accept the challenge and come back with something better.
“Ultimately, the final result wasn’t what we wanted but it was a great game to the last out. There was so much fight in us. Both teams really laid it all out there.”
Cooper, who entered her junior season with 16 career RBI, became the seventh player in program history to reach 40 RBI in a single season.
She and Schroeder, the team leader with 49 RBI, are the fourth Razorback teammates with 40 RBI each in the same season, and the first duo to do so since the 2014 campaign.
The Sooners tied the ballgame with a run in the second and scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch in the top of the fourth.
Arkansas had runners on second and third with one out in the third but the threat was cut short when Paige Parker snagged a liner back to the circle and flipped to third for a double play.
In the fifth frame, the Razorbacks put together a bases-loaded chance with two outs but came up empty on a groundout to first.
Oklahoma tacked on an insurance run in the fifth and led 5-3 entering the bottom of the seventh. Caroline Hedgcock worked the final 3.1 innings of the game, giving up one run on three hits.
She worked around a lead-off double in the seventh with two pop ups and a nice play up the middle by shortstop A.J. Belans who fielded the ball up the middle and spun to fire a strike to first base.
With the team down to its final three outs, Cooper got things going with a hit back at the pitcher and Belans knocked another base knock through the right side of the infield. Arkansas had runners on second and third after a throw to third trying to get the advancing Haydi Bugarin, on to pinch run for Cooper.
However, Oklahoma pitcher Paige Lowary quieted the would-be rally by striking out the next three hitters to end the game.
“As a coach, you’re always looking forward,” Deifel said. “You’re enjoying the moment and always looking to where you’re going so I’m very excited about the direction this program is going.
“I look at last year and how this team responded and dug in. Now I look at how we’re ending this year and I’m excited for the future because if I know this team, I know they’re going to respond and they’re going to want more.
“They’re always hungry for more and I’m ready for that, too.”
• Shelby Hiers threw out her 15th base runner of the season
• Tied for 10th most by an Arkansas catcher in a single season
• Loren Krzysko reached base safely in the final 17 games of the season
• Had a hit in 16 of 19 games since earning a spot in the starting lineup
• Autumn Russell was 5-for-8 during the NCAA Norman Regional
• Saturday’s game was the fifth NCAA meeting between Arkansas and Oklahoma