AUSTIN — The Texas A&M softball team was frustrated it couldn’t come up with a big hit in a 3-1 loss to Houston, an empty feeling magnified hours later when the Aggies could have been the team to beat in the Austin Regional heading into the second day of play.
A three-run homer in the fifth inning by Houston’s Arielle James was the only hit that mattered in Friday’s first NCAA tournament game at McCombs Field. James’ two-out line drive just cleared the left-field fence, ending a scoreless pitchers’ duel between A&M’s Kendall Potts and UH’s Savannah Heebner.
James made the Aggies pay for their lone defensive miscue as Brooke Vannoy struck out but reached on a passed ball. The homer was Houston’s only extra-base hit of the game, but it wasn’t the day’s biggest. That belonged to Sam Houston State’s Tiffany Thompson, who hit a two-run homer as the Bearkats stunned Texas 2-1.
Thompson’s blast put Sam Houston State (35-21) into Saturday’s 1 p.m. winners’ bracket final against Houston (38-17) with the Aggies (28-26) and Longhorns (41-15) meeting in an elimination game at 3:30 p.m.
With any kind of hitting the Aggies, who finished last in the Southeastern Conference and were one of the last four at-large teams picked for the NCAA tournament, could have been facing the Bearkats in a matchup of the field’s lowest-ranked teams. A&M is 50th in the RPI , the highest of any of the at-large teams in the field. SHSU is 76th, but the Bearkats are in the tournament for only the second time by winning the Southland Conference tournament and getting the league’s automatic bid.
A&M, which has a 52-game winning streak against Sam Houston State, couldn’t play its Highway 30 rival again because it went 1 for 10 with runners in scoring position against UH.
“We positioned ourselves with runners in scoring position, less than two outs with the right people up and just couldn’t get it done,” A&M coach Jo Evans said. “Obviously I am frustrated and disappointed.”
Three times A&M could have scored if it just hit a fly ball deep enough for a sacrifice fly. The batters struck out every time. The first two hurt the most because the game was scoreless.
A&M loaded the bases in the fourth with one out on infield hits by freshmen Baylee Klingler and Haley Lee and a walk by senior Riley Sartain. But freshman Morgan Smith struck out and junior Blake Ann-Fritsch flew out.
A&M put two more runners in scoring position in the fourth inning. Junior Kelbi Fortenberry reached on one of UH’s three errors. Freshman Kayla Garcia got an 80-foot double when third baseman Sarah Queen failed to make a backhanded grab and the ball glanced away.
Heebner bounced back by throwing five straight strikes, getting junior Payton McBride to strike out and Klingler to ground out.
“My approach is always to throw hard,” Heebner said. “I know that even though my defense can sometimes bobble the ball here and there, I still know they’re going to have my back and not let runs score, at least not easily. I know I’m just going to throw as hard as I can and try to keep the batters off balance.”
A&M put itself in position in the sixth to answer James’ homer by loading the bases with more help from UH. Lee singled to center. Smith reached on a one-out error by second baseman James, and Fritsch reached on an infield hit. But Heebner struck out sophomore pinch hitter Abby Smith on three dandy off-speed pitches mixed around a waste riseball. A&M got a gift run from Fortenberry’s grounder when first baseman Kelli Montgomery dropped the throw. But Garcia lined out, and Heebner closed the game by retiring A&M in order in the seventh for the only time.
“They had some errors that we took advantage of to get ourselves on base, but then we couldn’t do some damage in terms of scoring runs,” Evans said.
Heebner (14-8) struck out seven and walked two. The four-time All-American Athletic Conference senior right-hander also threw a complete game in a 9-3 victory over A&M on Feb. 27.
“I thought her change-up was very effective,” Fortenberry said. “It threw our hitters off. It was just dropping off the plate.”
Potts (12-13), who also dealt with a calf cramp on the humid day, was the hard-luck loser.
Houston had runners in scoring position in the fourth via a walk, swinging bunt and wild pitch, but Potts got Heebner to ground out with the runners holding, and Aspen Howie popped out.
In the fifth inning, Potts struck out Vannoy on a 3-2 pitch, but catcher Lee wasn’t expecting a riseball. The ball bounced hard off the padding on the wall behind home plate, but Lee couldn’t made a clean pickup to throw out the runner at first.
Barker followed with a single to center field, but after a visit from Evans, Potts struck out Lindsey Stewart.
James, who had struck out and flew out, jumped all over a 3-1 pitch up in the strike zone for her sixth homer.
“I was still kind of coming off that lovely little calf cramp I got,” Potts said. “It felt out and it sounded out when she hit it.”
James wasn’t sure if it would leave the park.
“I just saw a pitch up and in,” James said. “And right before that pitch, [coach Kristen Vesely] took timeout and she said just relax, look for a pitch you can drive, and I knew that was a pitch I could drive.”
Potts threw five innings, striking out three and walking three.
“I felt like my curveball was good today,” the junior right-hander said. “My screwball was effective and my riseball. My change-up wasn’t, but it came [around] towards the end.”
McBride pitched a hitless sixth as the Cougars left the bases loaded.
Lee had two hits for A&M, while Barker and Maya Thomas each had two hits for UH.
“I think we’re capable as an offensive unit to provide a little more run support,” Vesely said. “But again, it’s game one, just to shake off the cobwebs. We haven’t played in about  days. So getting in there and playing, facing live pitching, I thought we did a good job handling ourselves once we settled in.”
NOTES — Texas took a 1-0 lead against SHSU in the fourth inning on a home run by Mary Iakopo, the team’s first homer since April 10. ... Thompson hit her homer in the sixth after Megan McDonald reached on an error. Thompson’s shot, which hit off the camera platform to the right of the scoreboard in center field, was her seventh of the season and gave SHSU its second NCAA tournament victory. The other was 2-1 against Louisiana-Lafayette in an elimination game in the 2007 College Station Regional. ... SHSU junior Lindsey McLeod (22-8) allowed four hits, walking three and striking out one in a complete game against Texas. The Bearkats had only three hits.