Southern Miss Captures 2016 C-USA Tournament Title with 3-2 Win Over Rice Sunday
HATTIESBURG, Miss. - With three games each decided by single runs during the regular season, Sunday's 2016 Conference USA Baseball Championship title game between nationally-ranked Southern Miss and Rice was expected to be another down-to-the-wire finish.
As it turned out, it was exactly that, as the game ended when the third-seeded Golden Eagles cut down what would have been the game-tying run at home plate to preserve a 3-2 victory over the fourth-seeded Owls before 3,519 at sweltering Pete Taylor Park.
"If this was my last game to ever play here, I couldn't ask for a better game, that's for sure," said senior first baseman Tim Lynch, who was third in a four-man, relay-play chain that caught Rice second baseman Grayson Lewis for the final out.
Lynch and the rest of the Golden Eagles would find out Sunday evening whether the afternoon's championship would be the final scene in Hattiesburg.
Southern Miss (40-18) earned a NCAA Regional spot for the first time in five years by winning its third C-USA crown and first since 2010. The win also gave the Golden Eagles 40 wins in a season for the first time since 2009 as they improved to a program-record 28-4 at home.
And home in Hattiesburg hosting one of those 16, four-team regionals is where Southern Miss coach Scott Berry insisted the 20th-ranked Golden Eagles should be.
"There's no doubt we deserve to host," Berry said shortly sharing some emotional moments with his team and receiving a PowerAde bath in the middle of his postgame radio interview. "Why wouldn't we? We're the fifth RPI league in the country. We just won the conference tournament. We're playing well at the end. I think everything that they want, we can give. There's no doubt."
What was in doubt Sunday afternoon was how Southern Miss' meeting with No. 24 Rice (35-22) was going to come out.
In late April, the teams played three, nail-biting, one-run games at Taylor Park, with the Golden Eagles taking a pair of 2-1 victories sandwiched around a 4-3 win by the Owls.
The clubs followed a similar script Sunday.
Rice took a 1-0 lead in the second inning on left fielder Dayne Wunderlich's single after the Owls loaded the bases with one out against Southern Miss starter Hayden Roberts, who was making the first start of his Southern Miss career.
It was the only run allowed by Roberts, who would scatter four hits over 4 2/3 innings.
"It's a matter of inches," Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "We hit the ball very well (Sunday) and we couldn't find any gaps."
That ended Amador's day, and brought Rice's usual Friday night starter, Jon Duplantier, from the bullpen in his first relief appearance of the year.
Duplantier eventually struck out three Golden Eagles to end the inning, but in the process, uncorked a wild pitch that allowed Robinson to score and make it a 1-1 game.
Duplantier would strike out eight in 4 2/3, allowing just three hits.
But the Golden Eagles came up with big hits at the right time to get two more runs on the scoreboard.
In the eighth inning, Lynch led off with a walk and moved to second on a Duplantier wild pitch. Two outs later, designated hitter Daniel Keating drilled a 1-2 pitch into the left-center field gap to bring home Lynch for a 2-1 lead.
Center fielder Jake Sandlin saved two runs in the bottom of the inning when he outraced a fly by shortstop Ford Proctor to make a sliding catch at the fringe of the outfield warning track for the third out of the inning.
"I have never run so hard in my life," Sandlin said.
The Golden Eagles nicked Duplantier (7-6) for another, two-out run in the top of the ninth.
Sandlin doubled and Lynch walked for the third time, twice intentionally. Freshman Storme Cooper, who had entered as a defensive replacement in the bottom of the eighth, followed with an opposite-field single to bump Southern Miss' lead to 3-1.
First baseman Tristan Gray singled to open the bottom of the ninth off Sandlin's brother, Nick, who entered to close the game.
Sandlin got third baseman Connor Teykl to fly out, but Lewis singled, sending Gray to second. After designated hitter Dominic DiCaprio struck out, Wunderlich drove a ball into the left-center-field gap.
Gray scored, and Lewis was waved home. But Jake Sandlin retrieved Wunderlich's ball, hit Dawson as the cutoff man, who in turn found Lynch as a second cutoff near the pitcher's mound.
Lynch, who caught ball near his hip, then pivoted and threw a strike home to Robinson, who had the baseline covered and plate smothered.
"Tim, being in the right spot at the right time, threw the ball to me, and we banged (Lewis)," Robinson said. "I was very surprised they sent him, but that's Rice, though.
"Before the game, our coaches told us that they were very aggressive team on the bases, and we were prepared from the get-go."
After Robinson's tag, the dogpile ensued, and a half hour after the final play, Golden Eagles lingered on down the left-line at Taylor Park, mingling with fans, family, friends and each other in a celebration to savor.
"That's what I came here for," Southern Miss right fielder Dylan Burdeaux said, "and we got it done."
Five Southern Miss pitchers checked Rice on 10 hits, with reliever Nick Johnson (3-1) picking up the win with 1 1/3 innings of 1-hit ball.
"I thought we had a really good chance to win," Graham said. "We just couldn't put numbers on the board."
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