The celebration started early.
That was true both during the game, when UCLA’s fans at Easton Stadium rose in unison with the Bruins one out from another trip to the Women’s College World Series, and after the game, when UCLA’s players blasted music and shrieked as one in their locker room before being shushed for the sake of the post-game press conference happening one wall away.
But early or not, the celebration was warranted. Because for the fourth consecutive year, the third-seeded Bruins (56-5) are going to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series following a 3-2 win over Arizona to claim the super regional series.
“I told them to celebrate,” coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said. “They should. They earned it.”
But early on, it looked like that celebration may have to wait a day, if at all, had the Wildcats forced a deciding Game 3 in the double-elimination tournament. For at least a moment, Arizona (43-16) had hope.
The Wildcats jumped on the Bruins early with a two-run home run from first baseman Alyssa Palomino off UCLA starter Rachel Garcia. But inning after inning, hitter after hitter, that hope trickled away.
Arizona starter Taylor McQuillin tried to keep it alive, but despite stranding 11 Bruins baserunners, it just wasn’t enough for the Mission Viejo native on a night where her offense didn’t provide much help.
Better, but still not enough.
UCLA picked away at McQuillin, starting with a walk from Garcia in the second inning. She scored when Taylor Pack was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded before McQuillin retired the remaining batters.
It was almost the same story in the third and fourth innings: In each, UCLA scored one run but left two runners on base.
That was all Garcia needed, though. Aside from Palomino’s home run, Garcia shut down the Wildcats for the second night in a row, allowing four hits and one walk while striking out 10 in a complete game victory.
“A little bit had to do with Rachel [Garcia],” Arizona coach Mike Candrea said of his team’s inability to score runs. “Sometimes you’ve gotta give credit where credit is due.”
Arizona’s best chance to extend the series came in the fifth inning when second baseman Reyna Carranco spat a ball up the middle for a single. That brought Palomino up with a chance to give Arizona the lead if she could hit another one over the fence.
But Garcia wouldn’t be fooled twice. She struck out Palomino and the Wildcats never threatened again.
“Props to her,” Garcia said of Palomino, “but I knew my team had my back the rest of the game, and I knew I had to focus on one batter at a time.”
There was more celebration following UCLA’s post-game press conference, after which Inouye-Perez hugged Garcia and center fielder Bubba Nickles, who paced the Bruins with three hits.
Still, despite the chants of “OKC! OKC!” from the crowd, Inouye-Perez knows the work isn’t over. She knows her team has been to the Women’s College World Series the past three years without a title, and she wants that to change.
But for tonight, she wants her team to enjoy its accomplishments. She just wants to make sure that while they started early, they don’t end too late.
“I wanna take this team and get out there and get acclimated as quickly as possible,” she said. “But for tonight, we celebrate.”
Follow Ethan Bauer on Twitter @ebaueri