The Southern Miss baseball team continues to find a way.
The Golden Eagles needed two wins Saturday over Charlotte in the semifinal round of the Conference USA tournament and that’s what they got, earning a spot in Sunday’s 1 p.m. title game against rival Rice.
After the Golden Eagles used a walk-off homer by Taylor Braley to beat Charlotte 6-5 in the first game of the day, USM topped the 49ers 10-8 in the night game behind 11 hits and a clutch performance out of the bullpen by little-used Cooper Jones.
Jones, a junior right-hander who had only 1 inning of work all season, proved more than capable out of the bullpen. He threw 4 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out two and walking none.
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The Pensacola native received a post-game Powerade shower from teammates for his efforts.
“We talked about a star is born every day and there you have that example,” USM coach Scott Berry said. “He’s a young man who gets the opportunity and didn’t miss on the opportunity. He showed up big for our club.”
Nick Sandlin (10-1) earned his second win of the day, giving up two runs on three hits over the final three innings of the game. He struck out three and walked one.
Southern Miss improved to 48-13 to set a new single-season program mark for victories, surpassing the 2003 squad, the only team in school history to host an NCAA regional.
USM, which played in front of a crowd of 4,176 on Monday, seems destined to draw another NCAA regional to Hattiesburg this week.
“It is a special season and what makes it special are these young men,” Berry said. “They play hard and they play together.”
Freshman Matt Wallner was the biggest star at the plate for USM Saturday night, hitting a soaring 3-run home run in the top of first over the left field wall. It was his 18th homer of the season.
The freshman from Minnesota finished 3-for-5 at the plate with three runs scored.
Wallner and the rest of the Golden Eagles will take the field Sunday afternoon after playing 27 innings in the span of about 28 hours.
“I’m headed to the ice bath now,” Wallner said. “I think we’ll be OK.”
Berry didn’t know who his starting pitcher would be for Sunday’s title game against Rice (30-29).
“We’ll have to piece this thing together,” he said. “We’ve got to be careful because we’ve got a big tournament coming up as well. We’ll do whatever we can to win the conference championship.”
After Charlotte tied the game at 6-6 with a single run in the bottom of the seventh, Southern Miss responded with four runs in the top of the eighth to put the game out of reach for the 49ers.
Bryant Bowen regained the lead for USM at 8-6 on a two-run double, Wallner scored on a wild pitch and LeeMarcus Boyd capped the scoring with an RBI double off the left center wall.
USM starting pitcher Hunter Stevens threw well, but received little help from his defense. Charlotte scored five runs on four USM errors in the bottom of the second.
Stevens lasted 1 2/3 innings, giving up no earned runs on three hits.
“I felt so bad,” Jones said of Stevens’ situation in the second inning. “That guy worked so hard all year. He’s my throwing partner. I wanted him to do so well tonight. It was a tough inning to watch. I hated it for him. He supported me. I just wanted to pick him up.”
Jones worked through the Charlotte lineup with ease, giving the USM lineup time to overcome the early deficit.
“I was commanding my fastball pretty well,” he said. “The name of the game was getting ahead of guys with strike one. That’s what I did.”
Gulfport’s Daniel Keating hit a two-run home run, his 11th of the season, to left field to spark a three-run rally for the Golden Eagles to regain the lead at 6-5 in the fourth inning.
“All I wanted to do tonight was give us a chance to win,” Jones said. “We have the best offense in the country so it’s fun to pitch for them.”
Who: Southern Miss vs. Rice
What: C-USA tournament title game
When: 1 p.m., Sunday
Where: MGM Park, Biloxi
Radio: WPMO 1580-AM
TV: CBS Sports Network