CARBONDALE — Kyleigh Decker's two-run home run in the top of the seventh gave SIU's softball team the breathing room it needed to advance to today's title game of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
Decker's shot over the right field wall pushed the Salukis' lead to three, and they needed all of it to hold off second-seeded Missouri State 9-8 Friday night in Des Moines. SIU led 4-0 on Sydney Jones' first-inning grand slam, 6-5, and 7-6 before closing out its second win of the day. The third-seeded Salukis (31-21) beat seventh-seeded Illinois State 2-0 earlier Friday and will face top-seeded Drake (42-10) today at 1 p.m. with a spot in the NCAA Tournament on the line.
SIU overcame five errors, including three in one inning, to advance to the championship game of the MVC tournament for the second straight year.
"We just talked about our motto over the last 12-14 wins is to play all seven innings, so when we took that early lead I just told the kids the game was far from over," SIU coach Kerri Blaylock. "It was a little rough for us, defensively, but offensively we were just exceptional."
Drake beat Valparaiso 2-0 in the first semifinal of the day on Nicole Newman's no-hitter, just the fourth ever in a Valley tournament game. Valparaiso ended Indiana State's season earlier Friday.
Junior Brianna Jones, a first team all-conference pick, pitched a three-hit shutout in SIU's first game and earned the win over the Lady Bears in relief of Savannah Dover.
The host Bulldogs went 24-1 during the regular season in Valley play, with their only loss to Loyola. Drake swept SIU in their three-game series in Carbondale earlier this season, but two of the three games were decided by one run. Newman threw a no-hitter against the Salukis in a 1-0 win in Game 1 of that series and earned the save in Game 3, a 2-1 Bulldogs victory. Blaylock, SIU's career wins leader, said her team is confident and knows how to win close games.
"The big hit. We've talked about it," Blaylock said. "The home run, the big hit in a low-scoring game. We know what it takes to beat her, and the other thing is she's throwing on the second day. I truly believe, the teams that we're facing, all the pressure is on them. We weren't supposed to win it this year. We're playing with house money."