RALEIGH — The difference between having to win three games rather than just one turned out to be agonizing close for South Carolina.
One run. Two diving grabs by N.C. State to end the game. One runner for each team being thrown out at the plate.
These two teams entered their second-round NCAA regional game looking as evenly-matched as their records, and they played like it. But it was N.C. State that won 5-4 on Saturday night, and USC that was left with the steep road left to climb.
“It ain’t gonna be easy,” USC coach Ray Tanner said with a smile.
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Tanner knows the importance of a regional’s second game. Since 2000, the Gamecocks have won their first two games in a regional six of the past nine years. They won the regional each time they won the second game.
The previous two times they fell in the second round, they rallied once to win the regional (in 2001), but they fell in the second championship game to Georgia Tech two years ago.
This time, the second-seeded Gamecocks (39-22) will have to beat fourth-seeded James Madison today at 1 p.m. The winner faces a rested N.C. State (40-20) at 6 p.m.; if N.C. State loses that game, the regional title will be decided in a winner-take-all Monday game.
Tanner tried to put a brave face on his team’s situation.
“If you can get past that first one, you’re gonna play with adrenaline in that nightcap,” he said. “These guys are young. They can be tired next week sometime. You know, obviously N.C. State’s in the driver’s seat, but they deserve to be. But we’re gonna come out tomorrow and try and keep it going.”
N.C. State Elliot Avent said Saturday was the best atmosphere he’s seen at Doak Field in his 11 years since Tanner left for South Carolina.
“The emotion, so much emotion in this game,” said the Wolfpack’s Dallas Poulk, who started the bottom of the first by homering, then ended the game by catching a line drive.
In fact, the final two outs of the game were on diving catches, the first by N.C. State right fielder Dominique Rodgers.
Showing the gravity of the game, N.C. State used four pitchers in the top of the seventh inning, making changes after three consecutive at-bats. The last two moves worked as Justin Smoak lined out and James Darnell hit a fielder’s choice to end the inning.
“It was one of those games it seemed like every pitch made a difference, every pitch was important,” Tanner said. “And they came up one run better.”
N.C. State twice led by two, its biggest lead. South Carolina briefly led 4-3 in the sixth inning, getting both runs after a two-out fielding error by N.C. State.
The decisive inning was the eighth when the Wolfpack pounded out four consecutive singles against USC relief pitcher Brandon Todd and scored one run.
As for the Gamecocks, they went down in order once, in the ninth inning. They did well against N.C. State ace Clayton Shunick, who yielded four runs and eight hits over 6Ð innings.
But USC was 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position, and had two inning-ending double plays.
And through all the tension, the tight contest overshadowed Tanner’s first game against his alma mater.
“As far as the personal emotions, that didn’t exist,” Tanner said.
Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.