HATTIESBURG — Huge, gold-clad crowds turned out this weekend ready to party at Pete Taylor Park. After all, the home team, Southern Miss, had won the Conference USA regular season championship by three full games and entered the league tournament with a No. 7 RPI rating and an excellent chance to become a national top-8 seed in the NCAA Tournament that begins next week.
All the Golden Eagles had to do was take care of their business.
That was then.
This is now: UTSA – the University of Texas at San Antonio – dumped bucket after bucket of ice water on that would-be party, knocking the Golden Eagles off twice and out of the tournament. After edging the Eagles 7-6 on Friday, the Roadrunners completely throttled the home team 11-2 on Saturday. The drubbing was the worst for Southern Miss in more than two seasons.
So now we will see how much winning the regular season championship handily in the nation’s fifth best conference means in the eyes of the NCAA Baseball Selection committee. We’ll see what an excellent 43-16 overall record means. And we’ll see how much losing twice to a red-hot team at home affects all that.
Certainly, Southern Miss lost any chance at a national seed. Now we’ll see if the Golden Eagles will host an NCAA Regional for only the third time in history when the tournament begins next week.
The guess here is that they will. A 2-2 record in a league tournament should not wipe out an entire season’s body of work. Lest we forget, Mississippi State went two-and-out – and was 10-run-ruled twice in last year’s SEC Tournament. All the Bulldogs did then was win the national championship.
The 2022 tournament sites will be announced Sunday. The pairings will be announced Monday morning.
This much is certain: The Golden Eagles must play better next week than they did Saturday or their NCAA experience will be short-lived no matter where they play. UTSA banged out 15 hits – six for extra bases – en route to the nine-run victory margin. The Roadrunners took a 4-0 lead after three innings, received a brief scare when the Golden Eagles rallied for two runs – that easily could have been more in the seventh – and then finished the Eagles off with seven runs over the last two frames.
Meanwhile, Daniel Garza delivered on the mound for UTSA, pitching eight innings of remarkable relief to earn the victory. Said Southern Miss shortstop Dustin Dickerson, “Garza put his breaking pitches anywhere he wanted, spotted his fastball and kept us off balance all day. You have to give him credit. He was really, really good.”
Garza was, but hitting is the name of the game for UTSA, which sports a lineup that includes eight straight .300-plus hitters. Baby-faced cleanup hitter Ryan Flores is the best of the bunch, now 13 of 19 with three home runs and nine RBIs in five games against Southern Miss this season. In the two tournament victories over Southern Miss, Flores was 5-for-8 with a home run, a double and three RBIs.
It seems clear UTSA earned one of the spots Ole Miss was hoping for in the NCAA Tournament field. Either Louisiana Tech or Old Dominion – and maybe both – might pass the Rebels, as well. Depending on which predictions you read, Ole Miss is either one of the last teams in or one of the last couple teams out. UTSA, now 38-19 and with a 9-9 record against Top 50 teams, presumably passed the Rebels in the NCAA pecking order. We will see.
Southern Miss? The Eagles are definitely in the tournament, no lower than a 2-seed. Will they host?
“I believe we will, I really do,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. “I would hope the committee will take into consideration the entire body of work, rather than us going 2-2 in the the league tournament. I am proud of winning the league, proud of the 43-16 record.
“But no matter where we play – and I hope it’s here – we have to hit the reset button. We have to take a day off, put this one behind us and get ready for next week.”
Someone mentioned what happened with State last season – two and out and a miserable showing its league tournament and then an amazing, memorable run to a national championship.
“It’s a crazy game, a strange game,” Berry said. “It’s all about getting hot and playing your best at the right time. Well, for us. now is that time.”