The Rice baseball team was down and out on April 16, dropping to 13-25 overall following a 17-5 loss to Southern Miss in Houston.
On Sunday, the Owls lifted the Conference USA tournament trophy to earn their 23rd consecutive trip to the postseason with a win over those same Golden Eagles.
With one out and pinch runner Kendal Jefferies standing on second in the bottom of the ninth, Ryan Chandler lifted a deep drive to center for an RBI double to hand Rice a 5-4 win over rival Southern Miss in the C-USA tournament title game at MGM Park.
Rice, which began the tournament as a No. 6 seed, raced through the tournament without a loss.
“We were so far down it was ridiculous,’’ Rice coach Wayne Graham said. “In conference, I think we were 4-11. I told them we had to win five conference series in a row and they did it. We swept two of them. That put us in a position that we could get here and win. We had some good fortune here and some good pitching too.”
Sunday’s game was played before a crowd of 5,216, setting a new C-USA tournament record.
Glenn Otto got the win for Rice (31-29) on Sunday, pitching 5 scoreless innings in relief. He allowed just two hits, striking out five and walking three.
Otto, a junior right-hander, was named the tournament MVP after throwing 9 2/3 scoreless innings with a pair of wins this week.
Much like the rest of the Rice team, Otto had his own personal rebound this season following a rough start.
“He had arm trouble. We changed his release point because he was having an impingement,” Graham said. “We changed his release point and he gradually worked back into shape. He wasn’t even in shape until mid-season. You can see what a difference it makes. We don’t win here without him. We can’t win without him.”
USM won four consecutive games to get to Sunday’s title contest after falling flat in a 9-2 loss to Texas-San Antonio in the tournament opener on Wednesday.
The Golden Eagles (48-16) were disappointed to come up short on Sunday, but they have bigger goals ahead of them. USM will host an NCAA regional in Hattiesburg beginning on Friday.
“Hats off to our guys,” USM coach Scott Berry said. “We get in the loser’s bracket on Wednesday and then we battle ourselves back, knowing we were in the (NCAA) tournament the whole time. Why battle back when we know we’re there? We really had nothing to play for other than that tournament title, which is big. That’s what I like about this team. They knew it was big.”
Junior right-hander Colt Smith got the start for USM and sailed through three scoreless innings before rain forced a 53-minute weather delay at MGM Park.
He returned to the mound in the fourth and allowed four consecutive hits, including an RBI single by Ford Proctor.
“Doggone it, those rain delays haven’t been too good to us. It got us last year at FIU at the end of the year and it got us in the regional at Tallahassee (in a loss to South Alabama),” Berry said. “Today, we didn’t recover well. Still, we had a chance. We took the lead 4-2 and couldn’t hold onto it.”
Keys replaced Smith with none out and the bases loaded in the fourth and limited Rice to just one more run to close out inning, mostly thanks to a 6-4-3 double play for the first two outs of the inning.
The game was tied at 2-2 after four innings, but Southern Miss answered with a pair of runs in the fifth with Burdeaux bringing home a run on a groundout and Mason Irby going the other way with an RBI double to left.
Irby finished 3-for-4 at the plate with one RBI.
Keys allowed one run on three hits in 3 1/3 innings. He struck out two and walked one, showing that he deserves a prominent role in the postseason for the Golden Eagles.
“I just tried to pitch to contact, let my defense help me out,” Keys said. “Coach put me in there in a situation where he knew that I can get us out of that and move onto the next next inning. I was able to do that.”
Southern Miss scored first in the third inning when Matthew Guidry, who walked to begin the inning, scored on a Rice throwing error on an infield single by Irby with two outs.
USM freshman outfielder Matt Wallner pushed the lead to 2-0 in the fourth when he hit the first pitch of the inning well over the right center wall for his 19th homer of the season.
Wallner was on the mound when Chandler provided the game-winning hit, but the loss went to Trent Driver (2-1), who allowed one run on two hits in 1 2/3 innings.
Chandler led the way at the plate for Rice Sunday, finishing 3-for-5 with two RBIs.