The stakes went up for No. 6 LSU and No. 8 Auburn during the first inning of their softball regular-season finale Sunday.
That’s when Tennessee completed a win against Kentucky, meaning LSU had to win to claim one of the four byes in the Southeastern Conference tournament, which begins Wednesday at Tiger Park.
Moments later, Missouri defeated No. 1 Florida, opening the door for Auburn to pass the Gators and claim the SEC regular-season title with a win.
But LSU broke out of a brief hitting slump as Bianka Bell hit a go-ahead, two-run double and Sandra Simmons had a home run and an RBI single to lead the Tigers to a 7-1 victory, preventing a series sweep by Auburn at Tiger Park.
“Honestly, it was a must-win in my opinion,” LSU coach Beth Torina said. “It did a lot of things for us. It enables us to not play on the first day of the SEC tournament. It got us the bye to Day 2, and it got us momentum. It was a huge moral victory to help us moving forward.”
LSU (44-10, 15-9) claimed the final bye by virtue of a tiebreaker, having won two of three games at Tennessee on April 10-12. It will play its first SEC tournament game at 5:30 p.m. Thursday against the winner of Wednesday’s game between No. 5 seed Tennessee and No. 12 seed Kentucky.
No. 2 seed Auburn (46-9, 18-6) will play the winner of No. 7 Missouri and No. 10 Mississippi State at 10 a.m. Thursday.
Auburn held LSU to one run while winning two one-run games to start the series, but LSU broke out Sunday with two runs in the third inning, one in the fourth, three in the fifth and one in the sixth to beat Marcy Harper (10-4), who won Friday’s opener.
Torina brought back Carley Hoover (14-4), who was outdueled by Harper in the opener, and Hoover was in command throughout, pitching her 11th complete game and tying her season high with 12 strikeouts.
“I was ready,” said Hoover, who allowed three hits and two runs in a complete game Friday. “I was ready to compete, and I was ready to be better than I was on Friday. I was struggling a little bit on getting ahead, and my changeup wasn’t really on today, but my rise, both high and low, kept them off balance.”
Torina had Allie Walljasper, who allowed just one hit in a 1-0 loss Saturday, ready if Hoover faltered. Hoover yielded Tiffany Howard’s two-out RBI single in the second but didn’t allow another hit until the sixth.
“I knew what I was going to get from (Hoover and Walljasper) because I had seen what they did against (Auburn),” Torina said. “They had had some success, and I went with what I knew on a day when we had to have a win.”
LSU, which had no hits with a runner in scoring position through the first 16 innings of the series, took its first lead of the set in the third.
Emily Griggs led off with a single, her third straight hit and fourth straight time reaching base over two games.
A.J. Andrews and Bailey Landry followed with bunt singles before Bell hit a drive off the top of the wall in right-center. Two runs scored, but Bell was thrown out trying to reach third and Landry was thrown out at home.
“That was a big moment,” said Torina, who argued to no avail that the ball cleared the fence before bouncing back on to the field. “We executed the bunt in that one inning, which we hadn’t been able to do all weekend long. That really set up some moments for us.”
Though the rally yielded just two runs, LSU was on its way to finishing with 10 hits after getting just seven in the first two games combined.
“I think that boosted our energy, for sure,” Simmons said.
LSU increased the lead to 3-1 when Simmons hit her third homer of the season in the fourth. The margin grew on RBI singles by Sahvanna Jaquish, Kellsi Kloss and Simmons in the fifth and Landry in the sixth.
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.