KNOXVILLE - One big hit by Tennessee's Cheyanne Tarango may have been the key moment, but one pitch here and another defensive play made all the difference for the Lady Volunteers.
In front of a raucous and enthusiastic capacity crowd at Lee Stadium, Tennessee moved one win away from a third College World Series trip in three years with a nip-and-tuck 3-2 win against SEC rival and defending national champion Alabama in the NCAA softball super regional.
"Knowing that we've just got to win one more tomorrow," said the sophomore from California, "it definitely helps us go in there confident and knowing that we can do it."
Tennessee (48-10) would advance with a win at 5 p.m., while Alabama (45-14) would force a decisive third game at 8 p.m. with a win in the earlier game.
"I think that's what we all expected, right?" Lady Vols co-head coach Ralph Weekly said.
After Alabama opened the scoring in the second inning with Courtney Conley's RBI single just under the glove of Tennessee center fielder and former GPS standout Tory Lewis, Lady Vols catcher Hannah Akamine tied the game with her third homer of the season, a line shot over the left-field wall.
"It definitely changed momentum," Tarango said. "I feel like them scoring right off the bat, we didn't go down, but I definitely felt like we were in the ballgame. I felt like us scoring just made it, 'Yep, we're two good teams and it's going to be like this.'"
Alabama loaded the bases with one out in the third, but Tennessee pitcher Ellen Renfroe struck out Jadyn Spencer and Danielle Richard to escape the jam. In the bottom half, the Lady Vols loaded the bases by reaching on an error and managing two walks off Tide ace Jackie Traina. After Traina got Rainey Gaffin looking, Tarango smacked a 3-1 pitch to the right-center-field wall to bring in two runs.
The Tide answered with a run in the fourth on Haylie McCleney's double, but Tennessee All-American Raven Chavanne made an inning-ending throw to first from her knees with Alabama runners on third and second with two outs.
When Alabama advanced a leadoff walk to third base in the sixth, Tennessee reliever Ivy Renfroe, Ellen's older sister, induced a harmless bouncer back to the pitcher.
Chavanne, who bounced back from a third-inning error to record eight outs, made an impressive catch right at the dugout wall that made her game-ending field-and-throw look like a routine play.
"She made another good play there," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "She saved a run on the ground ball down the line [in the fourth]. She made a [heck] of a play against the dugout.
Tennessee won the first two games of a March series also in Knoxville against Alabama, then ranked No. 1 in the country.
"One of the officials told me it's a shame two teams like this, as strong as they are, one of them's not going to advance," Weekly said. "Of course we don't have any idea who that is right now. We have two more games."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.