Rice edges out USM with walk-off RBI double to win 2017 C-USA To - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Rice edges out USM with walk-off RBI double to win 2017 C-USA Tournament Championship

The Rice Owls celebrate after winning the 2017 Conference USA Tournament Championship at MGM Park. The Rice Owls celebrate after winning the 2017 Conference USA Tournament Championship at MGM Park.

Odds are, Wayne Graham can’t make it rain. But the long-time Rice University baseball coach sure knows how to get a team into the NCAA postseason.

The Owls weathered a 53-minute rain delay to twice rally past University of Southern Mississippi and win 5-4 in walk-off fashion in the title game of The First, A National Banking Association, Conference USA Championship.

Before the largest crowd in C-USA postseason baseball history (5,216), Ryan Chandler lashed the second pitch he saw from reliever Matt Wallner over the head of Southern Miss centerfielder Casey Maack for a double that scored pinch-runner Kendal Jeffries from second base with one out in bottom of the ninth.

That set off a giddy, postgame celebration as the Owls (31-29) clinched C-USA’s automatic bid to the NCAA postseason, extending that streak to 23 years. Early in the season, that streak seemed a sure bet to be snapped.

The Owls went 8-20 through the end of March, and were still seven games below .500 at the end of April.

“I know at one point, they were at the lowest of lows, possibly in the program’s history,” said Southern Miss coach Scott Berry, who saw his team post a 4-2 record in six games over five days in the tournament.

“For them to dig out of that, and do what they did (Sunday), that says a lot about them.”

For Southern Miss (48-14), 2017 has been one for the books. The Golden Eagles won the outright conference regular-season championship for the first time since 2013, have won more games than any other team in program history and are expecting to hear Sunday night that the NCAA postseason will be coming to Hattiesburg for the first time in 14 years and only the second time ever.

“We feel pretty confident about that,” said J.C. Keys, who gave the Golden Eagles 3 1/3 innings of solid relief Sunday. “That would be big, having the home crowd, being at home, Pete Taylor Park, that would be awesome.”

As awesome as the Owls appeared to feel after making a 4-0 run through the tournament field at MGM Park this past week, helped put Rice back in a familiar position.

“We’ve been on survival mode for so long,” said Graham, who has helmed the Owls for the past 25 years. “I told them when we had five conference series left, I said we have to win every conference series, and we did.

“They still want to win and they’ve learned how to survive. I think they’ve learned more from surviving than any other team I’ve ever had, coming from that far back, because the record was phenomenally bad and we were playing phenomenally bad…It’s been special.”

Pitcher Glenn Otto, who came out of the bullpen to win two games and save another without allowing a run during the tournament, was named the championship’s Most Valuable Player.

Sunday, Otto threw five innings of shutout ball, allowing just two hits. He walked three and struck out five.

“You can see what a difference Otto makes,” Graham said.

Southern Miss went up 1-0 in the third inning when Matthew Guidry walked, moved over on a bunt, went to third on Mason Irby’s infield single and scored when Tristan Gray’s shallow throw got away at first base.

Wallner, the C-USA Freshman of the Year, made it 2-0, Southern Miss, when he led off the fourth inning by lacing his league-leading 19th home run of the season onto a grassy knoll behind the right-center field wall.

But following Daniel Keating’s pop-up that ended the top half of the fourth, play was halted 53 minutes by a sudden shower that drifted away as quickly as it had arrived.

When the game resumed, the Owls tagged Southern Miss right-hander Colt Smith for four consecutive hits, including a leadoff triple by Chandler that ticked off Irby’s glove after he nearly collided with Wallner in deep right-center field.

Ford Proctor drive in Chandler with a single, and Dane Myers and Dominic DiCaprio singled to load the bases.

Keys came in and got a double-play grounder that scored Myers, and a flyout to minimize the damage, leaving the teams tied 2-2.

The Golden Eagles immediately got to Rice starter Matt Canterino, putting the first two men on base on a single by Guidry and an error on a sacrifice bunt that sent runners to third and second.

Otto (6-4) entered, allowing a run-scoring grounder by Dylan Burdeaux and RBI-double by Irby as the Golden Eagles grabbed a 4-2 lead in the top of the fifth inning.

But that’s all USM could manage to get on the board, and Rice tied the game in the bottom of the seventh when Darryn Sheppard scored on a wild pitch by reliever Stevie Powers and Chandler drove in Charlie Warren with a run-scoring single.

In the ninth, Andrew Dunlap led off with a single against reliever Trent Driver (2-1) and was bunted over to second by Dayne Wunderlich. That brought Wallner in from center field to relieve Driver, and Chandler ended the game two pitches later.

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