Rice's Keenan Cook connected on the fastball over the plate from Southern Miss's Nick Johnson. He took a step toward first base, then raised his fist high in the sky with jubilation as his shot landed in short center field. Ford Stainback sprinted home from third base and the Rice Owls were the victors of the C-USA baseball tournament.
The 5-4 Rice win didn't come easy. Cook won the game with a two-out, two-on shot in the bottom of the 11th inning. Closer Zech Lemond pitched the final 6.2 innings of the game, shutting down a Southern Miss team that had overcome an early 3-0 Rice lead. Rice left the bases loaded in the first and eighth innings.
"I was just ready to hit it," Cook said of his game-winning single. "I knew [Johnson] was going to come at me, so I was just ready to hit it."
This team isn't the best that Rice has fielded in years past, but as the team celebrated afterwards, none of that mattered. The Owls were once again conference tournament champions. And for the 19th season in a row, the Owls are back in the NCAA regionals with thoughts of Omaha dancing in their heads.
"We had done it," Cook said of his thoughts after the hit. "The season's been a tough one, and just to come through in a moment like that, it's awesome."
The Owls won this game the way the Owls always win games. The same way they won games all season. The same way they won games throughout this tournament. There was outstanding pitching, lots of outstanding pitching, timely hitting, some good defense. And there was more outstanding pitching.
Coming into yesterday's game, the pitching staff had surrendered only three runs (all earned) in the last 53 innings. Starters Austin Kubitza, Jordan Stephens and John Simms dominated the opposition during the tournament (all three were named to the all-tournament team), but perhaps no performance was as impressive as that of Lemond, the team's bullpen stopper who entered the game with one out in the fifth and took it the rest of the way.
Stephens, starting on short rest after pitching 5.2 innings of one hit, one run baseball on Thursday, cruised into the fourth inning yesterday before passing the torch to Blake Fox with the Owls hanging onto the 3-0 lead and two runners on base. Two unearned runs then scored, and Fox surrendered a run in the fifth. Lemond gave up the fourth run in the sixth inning, but hit his groove in the seventh and was barely touched after that.
"People pay for tickets," Lemond said. "You've got to make them happy."
Yesterday's game was the first time Rice had struggled in this Conference USA tournament. The team cruised wins over UAB, UCF and Memphis, hitting on all cylinders in ways the team had not done the entire season. The pitching was outstanding, as was the defense, but for once the offense was pulling its own weight. Players were hitting with runners in scoring position, not swinging at bad pitches, and just performing at a high level. The Rice Owl team that defeated Southern Miss was the one from the rest of the season, the one where the pitching had to keep the game close while the offense struggled to plate runs. The Owls loaded the bases with one out twice in the first inning, but were able to manage only two runs. They loaded the bases with one out in the seventh with only one out, but only managed one win.
But the pitching staff kept the Owls in the game so that when the offense did strike in the 11th, it mattered.
"That shows the kind of tenacity we have, especially the pitching staff," Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "I thought Zech Lemond, he hasn't thrown near that many pitches in any time this year, and he hung in there and hit with all of his pitches and kept us in the game."
The Owls are back in the NCAA postseason. A place to which they've become accustomed. It wasn't easy, but the Rice Owls don't do easy. They're ready, they feel, for whatever comes next.
"Playing a game where we didn't play very well and winning means a lot," Graham said. "It means we can win no matter what."
Now the Owls (41-17) are awaiting just one thing. They're awaiting their destination for this weekend, and that's something they'll find out later today.
HOUSTON COUGAR BASEBALL
The Houston Cougars (36-22) weren't as successful in the C-USA tournament as the Rice Owls. The Cougars, sitting atop the proverbial bubble, hoped to win three games and reach the title game. Instead, the Cougars went 1-2 in the tournament, including a disappointing, mistake-filled 3-2 loss to the Tulane Green Wave on Saturday that might have destroyed the team's remaining chances of advancing to NCAA postseason play.
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"I think we have an NCAA-type team," Cougars head coach Todd Whitting said Saturday. "We have a really good team. We just didn't play good the last two games. We didn't catch any breaks. We basically gave a game to Tulane today. I didn't feel like they did one thing to win the game. We shot ourselves in the foot. We'll probably end up paying for it."
The All-Tournament team consisted of pitchers Austin Kubitza, John Simms and Jordan Stephens (all from Rice); Jake Drehoss (Southern Miss); Rice infielders Shane Hoelscher and Christian Stringer; Houston infielder Jake Montemayor; ECU infielder Zach Houchins; Rice outfielder Leon Byrn; Southern Miss outfielders Dillon Day and Blake Brown; and ECU DH Drew Reynolds. The most valuable player of the tournament was Stringer, who had seven hits in 14 at-bats, scored five runs, stole a base and had one RBI.
************* This was the longest C-USA Championship title game in league history. And the 2012-2013 C-USA title games in football, men's basketball, and baseball all went past regulation.