RALEIGH — The first batter of the game for South Carolina was the best indication — but it was not when Reese Havens lined a shot down the line for a sure double. He does that a lot.
No, it was when Havens slid head-first into second base — with the relay throw still seconds from arriving.
Earlier this week, USC baseball coach Ray Tanner groused that he lacked rah-rah leaders, especially among his best players. He told his team he wanted them to “play with attitude.”
For one game, the Gamecocks heeded their coach. Throughout a 15-8 win against Charlotte in the first-round of the NCAA tournament, USC played with an energy that appeared to be missing in the latter part of the season.
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Tanner loved it.
“That was good to see. We went up there to try and make something happen and not wait for something to happen,” he said.
Tanner watched it all from the same Doak Field dugout he coached and played in during two decades at N.C. State. Today he gets to face his former team for the first time since coming to USC in 1996, thanks to top-seeded N.C. State’s win against fourth-seeded James Madison.
Despite the double-elimination format, second-seeded South Carolina (39-21) played like a team in danger of having its season end.
The offense was aggressive, both in the batter’s box and on the base paths. And despite the comfortable final margin, the Gamecocks needed every extra run.
Charlotte (43-15) rallied from a 9-0 deficit, getting within 10-7 in the seventh inning. But USC’s James Darnell put it away with a three-run homer in the eighth inning.
“I got the box score from the state official, and I asked him if they ran out of ink,” Charlotte coach Loren Hibbs said. “That wasn’t pretty at all. I think we got two pretty good teams that didn’t play exceptionally well.”
The Gamecocks have been known for their hitting all season, and on Friday they bashed out 18 hits, including two three-run homers. But they also did other things they haven’t been as known for:
Despite two errors, the defense was outstanding. DeAngelo Mack saved a double in the second inning with a diving catch. On the game’s first two plays, Darnell converted outs on two slow grounders.
“Their defense stepped it up for them,” Charlotte’s Aaron Bray said of USC.
The Gamecocks, who came in averaging barely more than half a steal per game, swiped a pair. Tanner also sent two runners in the second inning despite a 6-0 lead. Darnell fouled off the pitch.
Starting pitcher Sam Dyson held Charlotte scoreless for five innings, before leaving after Charlotte scored seven the next two innings. Mike Cisco closed it out, saving the rest of the bullpen for the remainder of the regional.
That was all good enough to win one game. The next one figures to be more difficult.
“The ball’s flying out of here,” Hibbs said. “I think I’m probably more impressed with N.C. State’s pitching numbers than I am anything else right now.”
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