Sports reporter

Todd Hefferman has covered SIU athletics since 2008. A University of Iowa grad, he is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and a Heisman Trophy voter.

Merri Anne Patterson wasn't giving up the last fly ball of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament when it was hit toward her Saturday.

The 5-foot-6 senior center fielder had seen a total of one win in the league tournament since coming to SIU in 2014 out of Richland (Tennessee) High School. With a spot in the NCAA Tournament on the line, she tracked Brittney Krodinger's soft liner right to the gap and set off an emotional end to the weekend.

"It's incredible," Patterson said Sunday night at the watch party for the Salukis at Pinch Penny Pub in Carbondale. "Kerri (Blaylock) keeps telling us to soak it all in, and I'm definitely soaking every bit of this in because I'm not going to get to have this ever again. This is a special group of girls, and I'm so happy we were able to pull this one out."

SIU's 33rd win of the season came with two of this year's team's calling cards: the big inning and the big save. 

The Salukis scored all four of their runs in the fourth inning, with five of their seven hits. With two on and nobody out in the bottom of the sixth, junior right-hander Savanna Dover escaped with a 4-3 lead.

Dover put the potentially-tying run on with a leadoff walk in the seventh, but got three straight outs to seal the victory. 

Patterson, a two-time All-Defensive Team honoree, had one of SIU's seven hits in the championship game. She had at least one hit in all three of the Salukis' tournament games, and has at least one in five of the last six. A .295 hitter this season, she is second on the team in RBIs with 39 and is one of only three seniors.

SIU could have some staying power ever after this breakout season. Freshmen Maddy Vermejan, Susie Baranski and Katelyn Massa have played in almost every game this season, and sophomores Brandenburg and Brianna Jones will be stalwarts for the team again next season.

Now we'll get to see what they're made of on the biggest stage in collegiate softball. SIU heads to Mississippi Wednesday for what it hopes will be a long weekend.

"Ole Miss is a good team. Obviously, they won the SEC tournament, but I feel like we have a very good matchup with them," Patterson said. "I feel like we were put in the best bracket possible to succeed, so, I'm really happy where we're at."

TODD HEFFERMAN covers SIU athletics for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at todd.hefferman@thesouthern.com, 618-351-5087 or on Twitter at @THefferman.

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