First came the dramatic, followed by the emphatic, as the University of Southern Mississippi turned the tables on the University of Charlotte Saturday at MGM Park.
Taylor Braley hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning as the Golden Eagles scored five runs in their final two at-bats to claim a 6-5 victory against the 49ers in the semifinals of The First, A National Banking Association, Conference USA Championship.
That forced a second game between the two, and Southern Miss got home runs by Matt Wallner and Daniel Keating and a key, two-run double from Bryant Bowen in a four-run eighth inning to take a 10-8 victory.
The Golden Eagles (48-13), who have won 18 of their last 19 games, now stand as the winningest team in the baseball program’s history.
But more importantly to the players and coaches, Saturday’s double-dip propelled Southern Miss from the elimination bracket and into a second consecutive appearance in the C-USA tourney title game.
The top-seeded Golden Eagles, who won the 2017 regular-season title, will be seeking to defend the tournament crown they won last spring in Hattiesburg when they meet Rice University (30-29) in a rematch of 2016 championship game.
“Right now, it’s all about attitude,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. “It’s confidence and belief in one another. Our guys are having fun and they’re winning doing it.
“We talked last night about coming in to (Saturday), and that we didn’t win (Friday) night to just show up and lose (Saturday), and that was the same message going into this game. We didn’t have an emotional, great victory over Charlotte in game one just to lose (Saturday) night.”
And the 11th-ranked Golden Eagles did not, overcoming a four-error second inning that handed the 49ers five unearned runs, eventually breaking a 6-6 tie with four runs in the top of the eighth.
“We’ve played some really good teams this year, but Southern Miss is the best team we’ve played,” Charlotte coach Loren Hibbs said. “They’re very physical and can beat you in a lot of different ways.
“We lost to the best team in our league. The best team in our league had to knock us out of the conference tournament.”
“It was a long day,” he said.
A day that started at 12:30 p.m. and for the better part of seven innings, Charlotte seemed to have the first game in hand.
But Southern Miss erased a 5-1 deficit over the last two innings, with Braley’s two-run, walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning giving the Golden Eagles their seventh walk-off victory of the season.
“I just calmed down, and said just try to barrel one up and keep the inning going,” Braley said. “That’s just kind of how it came out.”
Fourth-seeded Charlotte (34-23) was just three outs away from reaching its first C-USA title game since 1998.
“They’re a bunch of guys you just never doubt,” Berry said. “We’ve seen it time and time again, and saw it again (Saturday).
Charlotte led from the first pitch on, when leadoff man Zach Jarrett took the first offering from Southern Miss left-hander Stevie Powers over the left-field wall for a 1-0 lead.
The 49ers nicked Powers for two more runs in the second, the first on Harris Yett’s single and the other on a fielding/throwing error by Tracy Hadley.
But Hayden Roberts entered in the third inning, and slowed the 49ers’ roll. Roberts went 5 2/3 innings, allowing two runs on three hits, walking none while striking out three.
Roberts gave up a run in the fifth on Brett Zetzer’s sacrifice fly to put the 49ers ahead 4-0 but the Golden Eagles got one back in fifth when Mason Irby scored on Matt Wallner’s run-scoring double.
Charlotte tacked on another run in the top of the eighth inning on Reece Hampton’s bloop double into shallow center field off reliever Nick Sandlin, putting the 49ers up 5-1 and six outs away from Sunday.
“It wasn’t pretty for seven innings, other than Hayden Roberts going out there and keeping Charlotte down and giving this offense a chance because we feel like if there’re still outs on the board, we can score runs, and that’s what they did,” Berry said.
In the eighth inning, Braley walked and Wallner was hit by a pitch to lead off, bringing in reliever Josh Maciejewski from the bullpen.
Hunter Slater greeted him with a two-run triple ripped just inside the first-base bag and into the right-field corner and getting the Golden Eagles to 5-3.
Hadley then lined a single into left field to pull Southern Miss within 5-4.
Sandlin (9-1) held Charlotte down in the top of the ninth, setting up the dramatics in the bottom of the inning.
Irby walked off Maciejewski (5-5) before Braley connected rfor his 16th home run of the season. The ball disappeared into the trees just beyond the left-field netting, and a few moments later, Braley disappeared into the mob awaiting him at home plate.
“Honestly, I had a feeling he was going to leave the yard,” Berry said. “He’s just that kind of player.”
That set up game two, and the Golden Eagles jumped out to 3-0 lead on Wallner’s team-high 18th home run of the season in the first inning.
But Southern Miss starter Hunter Stevens was sabotaged by four errors in the bottom of the second inning, as Charlotte went up 5-3.
But little-used junior Cooper Jones came in to get the final out of the inning, and then stayed in to give the Golden Eagles four more shutout innings, allowing three singles, while walking none and striking out two.
Keating’s 11th home run of the season, a two-run shot in the fifth inning, tied the game, and Bowen singled and eventually came around to score on Matthew Guidry’s grounder to give the Golden Eagles a 6-5 lead.
Charlotte tied the game 6-6 on Logan Sherer’s double in the seventh inning, but the Golden Eagles rallied for a 10-6 lead an inning later.
Charlotte reliever Brandon Vogler (1-3) was lifted after walking Irby and Braley to lead off the eighth, and Wallner greeted new reliever J.D. Prochaska with a single to the opposite field to load the bases.
After Prochaska struck out Slater, Bowen ripped a double into the left-field corner to put Southern Miss ahead 8-6. Wallner would score moments later on a wild pitch and LeeMarcus Boyd added a double later in the inning to put the Golden Eagles up four runs.
Sandlin (10-1), who picked up his second win of the day, got through a scoreless eighth inning before being touched for a two-run triple by Reece Hampton in the ninth.
But Sandlin caught Zack Smith looking at strike three to end the game.
Wallner finished with three hits, three runs scored and three RBIs for Southern Miss, while had two hits and two RBIs.
Brett Netzer led Charlotte with three hits and two runs scored, while Hampton and Sherer had two hits each.