South Carolina’s run as the host team in the SEC softball tournament lasted one day.
After a 7-5 loss to Auburn in the opening round Wednesday night at Carolina Softball Stadium at Beckham Field, the Gamecocks hope it wasn’t their final game of the season.
The 64-team NCAA tournament field will be announced Sunday night, and USC coach Beverly Smith believes the Gamecocks, who sport a 35-20 record and a national RPI of No. 32, aren’t finished yet.
“I feel strongly that we’re going to hear our name called on Sunday night,” Smith said. “The big question is going to be where we’re going. Certainly, I don’t want to jinx us, but I think we’re in a better position than we were last season.”
South Carolina went to the NCAA regional in Austin, Texas, a year ago, when that team went 2-2 to finish 34-25.
Despite a rally from a 4-0 deficit against the Tigers (39-16-1), ranked No. 22 in the USA Today coaches poll and the holder of the nation’s No. 15 RPI, the Gamecocks never could find a way to forge a lead against a team they defeated two-of-three times the previous weekend.
“I wish we had executed better, and it’s this time of year when the team that plays best on game day is going to win the ballgame,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, that was Auburn tonight. But I tell you, I liked our girls’ fight. We came back in the game. We just dug our hole early.”
Auburn, which advances to play top seed Alabama on Thursday at 6:30 p.m., jumped out to a 4-0 lead with two runs in the first and fourth innings, highlighted by solo homers from Emily Carosone – who hit hers on the first pitch of the game from USC’s Julie Sarratt – and Austyn West, who belted hers to knock Sarratt out of the game in the fourth.
But South Carolina roared back with three runs in the fourth inning, one on Kristen Struett’s RBI double and two on Victoria Williams’ home run, and one more in the fifth on Ashlyn Masters’ home run.
“I never count our offense out, and I thought there was a lot of game left,” Smith said. “Certainly, we were familiar with their pitchers and we started making good contact with the ball and had some big hits from Victoria and Ashlyn both. I was feeling the momentum for sure.”
The Gamecocks, however, couldn’t get on top, and Auburn’s two runs in the sixth provided the difference despite a late solo homer from Olivia Lawrence.
“It’s always disappointing when you don’t have the win in your favor,” Masters said. “But that was a tough ballgame, and I felt like the whole team had a big part, a big role, each player. We came out with a fight.”
Two of Auburn’s final three runs came with the help of an error in the sixth inning and a wild pitch in the seventh. First-year Auburn coach Clint Myers, who guided Arizona State to two national championships, knew his team had been in a fight, especially after dropping the series three days ago.
“They’re a great team, well-coached and they’ll do well in the playoffs. We’re excited because we played well, and things went our way tonight. We’ve just got to keep it going,” Myers said. “Those were two pretty even teams. It was actually nice because there were no surprises. We knew what they were going to do, and they knew what we were going to do.”
Sarratt gave way in the fourth inning to freshman pitcher Nickie Blue (17-10), who took the loss after allowing four runs, three earned. Blue came out in the seventh due to an arm issue, and Sarratt returned to get the final three outs. Auburn starter Lexi Davis (20-10) picked up the win, and Marcy Harper tossed two scoreless innings for her second save.
Still, Smith likes what she has seen down the stretch from her team, which won nine-of-13 to end the regular season. She hopes to have freshman first baseman Kaylea Snaer, who has eight homers and 35 RBIs, back from an arm injury for the NCAA tournament.
“I believe we’re playing good softball right now,” Smith said.