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USC softball’s chances to host NCAAs take a hit. Gamecocks not giving up hope

The postgame message for No. 14 South Carolina softball was loud and clear.

Assistant coach Lisa Navas stood in the circle along the right field line and preached that the Gamecocks are one of the best teams in the country and need to start playing like it if they want Carolina Softball Stadium at Beckham Field to repeat as an NCAA Tournament host site.

After losing back-to-back games in heartbreaking fashion to No. 15 Georgia, the margin for error becomes smaller.

A couple of unearned runs and Lacey Fincher’s sacrifice fly in the seventh inning were the difference in Sunday’s 3-2 series clinching victory for the Bulldogs.

“We’re all disappointed with the outcome of the weekend,” South Carolina coach Beverly Smith said. “Our message was about continuing to believe that we can do it. They have to decide as a group and continue to believe in their ability. My point was, the only difference between the two teams on the field today was execution on game day.”

The Gamecocks fall to 35-14 overall and 8-12 in the SEC with one road series at Missouri remaining in the regular season. There’s still a chance South Carolina could host a regional with a strong finish and solid showing in the SEC Tournament.

“It would be great to get a sweep, but I know that’s hard to do on the road,” Smith said. “But I think we need three wins. I will take my team any day when we’re locked in and focused, but I think it’s going to take three wins for us (to be considered for a host site).”

The losses on Saturday and Sunday spoiled senior days for outfielder Kennedy Clark and pitcher Dixie Raley. The Bulldogs rallied and won in extra innings on Saturday before taking advantage of a few miscues from the Gamecocks to win the series.

Georgia (35-17, 9-12) jumped to a 2-0 lead in the third thanks to a couple of South Carolina fielding errors. Ciara Bryan singled with one out then scored on the first of two errors by Gamecocks shortstop Madison Owens. Alyssa DiCarlo hit a sharp grounder to Owens that bounced off the heel of her glove into short centerfield.

Owens tried to cut Bryan down at the plate, but her throw was wide, allowing DiCarlo to move to third on the play as well. Fincher brought DiCarlo in with a sacrifice fly two batters later.

“The margin of victory between everyone in our league is so small, you can’t afford lapses in mentality or focus, and that’s what we’re trying to emphasize with them,” Smith said. “When you have an equally talented team, it comes down to the little things — the focus, the execution, it could be one pitch, one at-bat. It could be a big difference in a ball game.

“We gave a lot of runs away all weekend, and I will tell you we’re a better defensive team than that.”

The Gamecocks, who were hitless over the first 4.1 innings, scratched back to tie the score at two. Lauren Stewart got the first hit for South Carolina with a solo home run in the fifth inning. It was the 65th home run of the season for USC, tying the single season record established in 2018.

Haley Simpson and Mackenzie Boesel opened the sixth inning with back-to-back singles before a 5-3 double play left a runner on second with two outs. Clark then ripped a triple into the gap in right-centerfield to tie it at 2.

But the tie was short-lived.

Kelsey Oh relieved Cayla Drotar to start the seventh and the Bulldogs rallied. A walk and double by Alysen Febrey put runners on second and third with one out before Fincher lifted her sacrifice fly to center field.

“We have to believe in ourselves and believe we’re one of the top teams in the country, because we are,” Clark said. “We just didn’t show it this weekend.”