NSU's season ended with a 7-6 loss as the Cougars recovered from 5-1 and 6-4 deficits, scoring a decisive three runs in the bottom of the sixth.
The Lady Demons (30-22) saw their second straight NCAA appearance halted despite smacking 11 hits and again playing error-free defense, highlighted by a spectacular diving snag of a looping line drive into short left field by senior shortstop Tara McKenney.
All but one of Northwestern's starters had at least one hit, with Cali Burke, Cassandra Barefield and Kellye Kincannon collecting a pair. Kincannon and Barefield each drove in two. But Houston's cleanup hitter, Kayla Holland, plated four on a home run and double, leadoff hitter Selena Hernandez brought home two with a sixth-inning double that tied the game 6-all, and UH (33-22) then scored the game-winner on a two-out base hit by Haley Outen.
"We've been telling them for a month and a half now, we've got to score eight," said Pickett, whose team lost freshman pitching phenom Micaela Bouvier to a season-ending wrist injury in January. "It just so happened today, we really needed to score eight. It would have been enough. It's hard to do against a good program like that."
"We knew it was going to be a good fight," said UH coach Kyla Hall Holas, a 2011 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee for her remarkable pitching career at UL-Lafayette. "Northwestern State is a great ball club with a great offense."
NSU stranded eight runners, four failing to scratch in the first two frames, before whacking five hits and roaring to a 5-1 lead in the third inning – but still leaving the bases full. Consecutive doubles from Barefield, a one-hop liner off the left field fence, and Kincannon made it 3-1, before an infield single by Shenequia Abby bumped the lead to three, and a bases-full walk by Burke opened a four-run gap.
"We left some on the table, and it cost us," said Pickett. "Both teams made plays, they just a little more than we did."
Houston answered immediately with a three-run Holland homer in the bottom of the third.
Northwestern had a valuable run taken away in the top half of the sixth when UH successfully appealed that Barefield, who had just doubled to make it 6-4 NSU, didn't touch home plate coming home unchallenged on a two-out Kellye Kincannon single to center.
"I personally thought I hit it. I have a really big foot. I saw dirt come up," said Barefield. "I'm not too sure."
Barefield had lashed a shot off the centerfield wall to plate pinch runner Kayla Boening for a two-run lead. The scoreboard didn't revert back from 7-4 to 6-4 until Houston's fateful bottom of the sixth was starting and the final box score still had Kincannon credited with the RBI.
"The mark looked like she touched the plate," said Pickett, who calmly but firmly questioned the home plate umpire. "You could see the back of the heel cleat mark in the dirt on the plate. He's making the calls, he said 'she didn't touch it, she didn't touch it.' It's a tough break. You go up three, it's a totally different approach down the stretch."
But despite Houston's late break and surge, Pickett and his players were proud to regain their form after managing only two hits Friday night in a 6-1 loss to No. 17 Baylor. NSU ranks in four Top 40 NCAA offensive statistics, including team batting average (.306) and slugging percentage, and has nine individual NCAA top 100 offensive rankings.
Burke, the senior second baseman who went 2-for-2 to finish with a .341 batting average, said if NSU had to lose, at least the Lady Demons went down swinging.
"That defines us. That's how this team is, and I'm really proud to say I played with these girls," she said.
An emotional Pickett praised pitchers Baylee Gray, who started Saturday, and senior Kaylee Guidry (12-5), who didn't allow a hit and only one baserunner while facing 12 Cougars until an infield single off her glove with one down in the bottom of the sixth sparked UH's winning rally.
"We had a key injury in January to a pitcher who was going to be a big addition to our team. I can't say enough about the pitchers we had," said Pickett. "Piecing it together was rough at times, and we had to reinvent ourselves through the season to get outs and put ourselves in position to win at regionals. That says a lot about this team's competitiveness.
"I'm happy with our kids, I'm happy with our seniors, and they have every reason to be proud of what we accomplished in these last two seasons raising this program to another level."