With their back against the wall and facing the team that put it there, the 11th-ranked University of Southern Mississippi handed the baseball to junior Taylor Braley Friday night.
That turned out to be a very good call indeed.
With the packed-in-black-and-gold stands at MGM Park in full roar, Braley threw eight shutout innings to help USM stay alive in the 2017 Conference USA Baseball Tournament with a 7-1 victory over the University of Texas-San Antonio.
“No better guy to hand that ball to, especially in that situation,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. “Just outstanding. He couldn’t have been any better and our team played terrific all the way around.
“We did a lot of things well and deserved to have that win.”
Top-seeded USM (46-13) will face fourth-seeded University of Charlotte (34-22) in a 12:30 p.m. Saturday semifinal. It will be the first meeting between the teams this season.
Charlotte won its first two games, so the 49ers did not play Friday and advanced straight to Saturday’s semifinals. The Golden Eagles will have to defeat the 49ers twice on Saturday to advance to Sunday’s 1 p.m. championship game and defend their 2016 tourney crown.
“Obviously, we have to win the first one,” Braley said. “We can’t count on it. We have to win that first one, then we’ll worry about the second.”
Braley (6-2) scattered seven singles over eight innings, walking none while striking out nine as the Golden Eagles avenged Wednesday’s 9-2 opening-round loss to the eighth-seeded Roadrunners (29-28) that sent Southern Miss into the elimination bracket.
The Golden Eagles bounced back with a 5-2 win that eliminated fifth-seeded Louisiana Tech Thursday, then eliminated UTSA Friday.
Southern Miss banged out 12 hits against the Roadrunners, with right fielder Mason Irby going 3 for 4 with an RBI. Third baseman Tracy Hadley, First baseman Dylan Burdeaux and catcher Bryant Bowden each collected two hits.
Burdeaux reached 100 hits with a single and double in his first two at-bats. He became the first C-USA player to reach hits in a season since East Carolina’s Trent Whitehead finished with 105 hits in 2009.
The Golden Eagles grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first inning off UTSA starter Nolan Trabanino (6-7) when Burdeaux scored on left fielder Matt Wallner fielder’s choice grounder
Burdeaux made it 2-0 in the second inning when he doubled with two outs to score shortstop LeeMarcus Boyd from first base.
Bowden led off the fourth inning with his fifth home run of the season, a blast to left field that cleared the netting and an oak tree directly behind the fence. Three of Bowden’s home runs came against the Roadrunners in the past eight days.
The Golden Eagles added two more runs in the inning, one on Irby’s single, the other on Braley’s sacrifice fly, for a 5-0 lead.
Southern Miss made it 7-0 in the fifth inning on run-scoring singles by Boyd and second baseman Matthew Guidry.
Braley held UTSA to four singles through the first seven innings, with no Roadrunner reaching second base.
UTSA led off the eighth inning with three, consecutive singles to load the bases.
But Braley bowed up, striking out pinch hitter J.T. Gilmore and center fielder Kevin Markham and then getting a chopper to shortstop that Boyd flipped to Hadley at third base for the force.
Alex Nelms pitched the ninth inning, allowing a run on two hits, including C.J. Pickering’s single.