University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior pitcher Taylor Deason knew what was on the line coming into Saturday's Southern Conference tournament title game against Mercer. Not just the end of a season -- the end of her career.
With that motivation, she pitched one of the strongest games of that career: a four-hitter with six strikeouts in the Mocs' 3-1 win that provided the program's 13th SoCon tournament crown and a bid to the NCAA tournament. It was their second in a row.
"I woke up this morning and said, 'This could potentially be the last game you ever play and the last game you ever pitch,'" Deason said after the game. "I honestly went out there and pitched like I was never going to pitch again.
"I talked to myself the whole game. It was 3-1, so it was a close ballgame the whole way. One pitch could have tied it up."
UTC (35-13) was the top seed and host in the tournament but needed walk-off hits by catcher Anyssa Robles to win its first two games. Those included Friday's 7-6 defeat of Mercer, which earned a rematch with a 2-0 win over Furman on pitcher Kirsten Stevens' no-hitter.
The SoCon determined the Mocs would be the the road team for Saturday's title game, putting them in the visitors' dugout and batting at the top of each inning. Mercer had played two of its four tournament games as the road team while UTC had been the home team in both of its previous games.
The Mocs took advantage of getting the first at-bat. Center fielder Sam Taylor opened the game with a double to left center off Stevens, moved to third on a single by shortstop J.J. Hamill and scored on a sacrifice fly by third baseman Sarah Beth Roberts. Outfielder Nicole Osterman singled and second baseman Criket Blanco walked to load the bases, and Robles scored Hamill with another sacrifice fly, giving UTC a 2-0 lead before the Bears batted.
"I knew I needed to set the tone, because it's my job to get on base," Taylor said. "I knew that it would get my team fired up if I led off with a hit, and that just got everything rolling for us.
"We knew we needed to attack, especially seeing that pitcher multiple times (in the tournament). We knew we had to jump on her and not wait until late in the game."
The Mocs added another run in the third on a Robles double that got Osterman home, but Stevens held UTC scoreless from there, proving why she pitched all 33 2/3 innings for the Bears in the tournament.
From then on, it was up to Deason and the Mocs defense to hold the lead. Bears catcher Natalie Shiver scored on a sacrifice fly by Quirisa Mauga in the bottom of the fourth, but the Mocs turned two key double plays to get out of trouble in the second and sixth innings.
Mercer leadoff hitter Taylor Miller also helped the Mocs by twice being called out when she ran into the ball in play on bunt attempts.
Both pitchers struggled with a seemingly tight strike zone for umpire Eric Philbert, but Deason did a good job of continuing to pitch her game.
"One of the things she sometimes wants to do is adjust to what she thinks the umpire wants," Reed said. "We have to tell her we don't want to pitch what he wants -- we want to pitch the way we want. We'll get them to bite at it if it's good enough.
"She did that a little bit in the early innings, but then she hung right there where we wanted to throw it and made them pay."
Taylor and Osterman each had two hits for the Mocs, who will find out where they will play in the NCAA tournament at 10 tonight on the selection show on ESPNU. The public is invited to join them at Buffalo Wild Wings downtown, beginning at 9.
UTC, which has seven seniors, lost four of its final six regular-season SoCon games but rose to the occasion in the tournament.
"I'm so happy, and I'm so proud of this team," Deason said. "To be able to finish my career on this field with the biggest accomplishment so far is amazing. ... I'm so proud of every ounce of fight we gave in this tournament. The odds were against us and we never gave up."
Echoed Osterman: "It's a great feeling to go out with a bang like this. I'm really proud of everybody. We each had our individual roles in doing well in this tournament, and that led us to doing really well. It feels really good."
Contact Jim Tanner at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.