SEATTLE — Danielle Spaulding threw two no-hitters and yielded just three runs in four games in the NCAA softball tournament.
Spaulding's reward? A pat on the back and a premature end to her glorious career at North Carolina.
"She definitely will go down as the most outstanding pitcher we've ever had at North Carolina," coach Donna J. Papa said after the Tar Heels lost 2-1 in eight innings to top-ranked Washington on Sunday afternoon in the championship game of the Seattle Regional.
The Tar Heels (42-20) advanced to the title game by defeating Nebraska 1-0 for the second straight day, with Spaulding throwing no-hitters in both games against the Cornhuskers.
Spaulding threw seven no-hitters this season and has 10 in her UNC career.
The second Nebraska game, postponed from Saturday night because of a rain delay in an earlier game, was decided by freshman Kellie Wheeler's home run in the top of the eighth inning. Wheeler blasted an Ashley Hagemann fastball approximately 250 feet to left-center, to the delight of Spaulding.
"I was ecstatic," Spaulding said. "I was so excited."
Spaulding tied her season high with 18 strikeouts against Nebraska (30-29). The senior left-hander limited hard-hitting Washington (48-6) to six hits and struck out nine in her fourth complete game in three days, but she lost a one-run decision to Huskies ace Danielle Lawrie for the second straight day.
Lawrie approached Spaulding after the game and congratulated her. Until the eighth, Spaulding (21-7) had held Washington scoreless except for Niki Williams' leadoff homer in the second.
"When you see great talent, you need to let them know," Lawrie said. "She's one of the top three pitchers I've ever faced."
Lawrie (38-2), who beat North Carolina 1-0 on a two-hitter Saturday, struck out 15 in a three-hitter in the rematch with Spaulding.
"Two great pitchers," Papa summed up.
Freshman catcher Shawna Wright ended the game with a sharply hit double down the left-field line. The hit scored Jenn Saling, who bunted on her own and narrowly beat the throw to first by Spaulding. Saling advanced to second on the overthrow.
After Saling reached base, Papa then elected to intentionally walk powerful Lawrie to set up potential force plays at third and second. Wright, Washington's cleanup hitter, said she "definitely" took it personally when Lawrie was intentionally walked to get to her.
Lawrie's string of three consecutive shutouts and 251/3 scoreless innings ended when Ally Blake doubled in pinch-runner Tisha Mahon with one out in the top of the seventh.
Lawrie had been cruising along with a one-hitter before McKinney led off the seventh with a single up the middle. Mahon then advanced to second on a wild pitch.
Spaulding, one of North Carolina's top hitters, popped out to Lawrie before Blake stepped to the plate.
"What went through my mind is, I didn't want that to be Spaulding's last at-bat," Blake said.
As it turned out, it was just that. The Tar Heels were soon headed home, and third-seeded Washington earned a shot against 14th seed Oklahoma in a best-of-three Super Regional later this week in Seattle.
UNC was the last of the five ACC teams that made the NCAA tournament to be eliminated.