Golden Eagles play for pride

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 26, 2012

PEARL — Even in the elation following Thursday’s win over Houston in the Conference USA Tournament, there was a feeling of helplessness among Southern Miss’ players and coaches.

Their fate, in regards to reaching the tournament championship game, was out of their hands. The Golden Eagles spent the next few hours waiting, watching and hoping everything fell in just the right order to give them a chance.

It didn’t.

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Rice beat Memphis later Thursday night to clinch a spot in Sunday’s championship game. Southern Miss and Rice will play tonight at Trustmark Park just for pride.

“It’s a big win. We play Rice, and it’s a dominant team. If that’s our last game, we’ve got to go out on top. That’d be a good win to have,” Southern Miss outfielder Kameron Brunty said.

Southern Miss (31-24) will have its streak of nine consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances snapped. USM’s RPI ranking entering this week was 89th, far too low to earn an at-large bid, and it needed to win the league tournament to secure an automatic berth.

The Golden Eagles will be able to pinpoint one inning — and perhaps even one at-bat — where it all slipped away.

Southern Miss held a 3-2 lead entering the seventh inning of Wednesday’s tournament opener against Memphis. Starting pitcher Andrew Pierce was cruising, until the Tigers’ cleanup hitter Eli Hynes started fouling off pitches.

Hynes fought off a half-dozen before connecting for a double to left field on the 13th pitch of the at-bat. A tiring Pierce plunked the next batter, gave way to the bullpen, and the floodgates opened.

Memphis went on to score nine runs in the inning, against four pitchers, and won the game 14-3.

Suddenly, Southern Miss no longer controlled its tournament life. It needed to not only win both of its remaining games, but have Memphis lose its last two to reach the championship game.

“You’ve just got to keep your mind off it, because if you start to think about it, it’s really nerve-wracking and it’s not really fun to think about,” Brunty said. “You just have to play the game and hope everything turns out your way.”

Southern Miss did its part Thursday by recovering from two blown leads in the later innings to beat Houston, 8-7, in 10 innings. Memphis didn’t cooperate.

The Tigers rallied for two runs in the seventh inning and one in the eighth to beat Rice 3-2. That clinched Memphis’ first appearance in the C-USA championship game since the league was formed in 1996.

Memphis’ last appearance in any tournament final was in 1995 as a member of the Great Midwest Conference.

Memphis (31-26), ranked 77th in RPI, still needs to win the C-USA Tournament to advance to an NCAA regional next week. It has won 13 of its last 15 games, though, and seven in a row overall.

“It feels amazing. After the start we had at the beginning of the season, to be in the championship game, it’s unbelievable how far we’ve come. I’m speechless about it,” Memphis pitcher Dan Langfield said.

Because of the tournament’s pod system that guarantees each team three games, there’s still some baseball left to play. Memphis faced Houston on Friday night, and Southern Miss and Rice meet tonight at 7 in the last game before the championship.

Rice, ranked No. 11 in RPI entering the week, will not only earn an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament but might be in line to host a regional.

“We’re going to come out and try to play a good ball game on Saturday and get ready for the playoffs,” Rice coach Wayne Graham said.

Southern Miss will get ready for next season. It’ll try to show the same sort of resolve it mustered against Houston, when it squandered a four-run lead in the seventh inning and a two-run lead in the ninth before winning, and carry some positive momentum into the future.

“That’s the good thing about this team. This game, we didn’t just give up on it,” USM closer Bradley Roney said after the win over Houston. “This win today, it helps us in a sense, but we still need to take care of business again with Rice. It’s good to know we took care of our part, and we’ll just see what happens Saturday.”