For the better part of seven innings, the University of Charlotte seemed to have its baseball game with the University of Southern Mississippi well in hand in the semifinals of the 2017 Conference USA Baseball Championship.
Hunter Slater, Tracy Hadley and Taylor Braley and the rest of the Golden Eagles had other ideas.
Southern Miss erased a 5-1 deficit over the last two innings, with Braley’s two-run, walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning giving the top-seeded Golden Eagles a 6-5 victory over the fourth-seeded 49ers at MGM Park Saturday afternoon.
“I just calmed down, and said just try to barrel one up and keep the inning going,” Braley said. “That’s just kind of how it came out.”
The teams will face each other again at 7:30 p.m., with the winner going on to face Rice University the tournament championship game at 1 p.m. Sunday.
The Golden Eagles (47-13) had to win twice Saturday after losing in the opening round and having to come back through the elimination bracket.
“They’re a bunch of guys you just never doubt,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. “We’ve seen it time and time again, and saw it again (Saturday).
Charlotte (34-23) was just three outs away from reaching its first C-USA title game since 1998 before the Golden Eagles pulled off their seventh walk-off win of the season.
“It’s two teams playing at a real high level and they were just a little bit better than we were,” Charlotte coach Loren HIbbs said.
Charlotte led from the first pitch on, when leadoff man Zach Jarrett took the first offering from Southern Miss left-hander over the left-field wall for a 1-0 lead.
The 49ers nicked Powers for two more runs in the second, the first on Harris Yett’s single and the other on a fielding/throwing error by Hadley.
Roberts entered in the third inning and gave up a run in the fifth on Brett Zetzer’s sacrifice fly to put the 49ers ahead 4-0.
The Golden Eagles got one back in fifth when Mason Irby scored on Matt Wallner’s run-scoring double, but Charlotte got that run back in the top of the eighth inning on Reece Hampton’s bloop double into shallow center field off reliever Nick Sandlin.
The 49ers were up 5-1 and six outs away from Sunday's championship game.
“It wasn’t pretty for seven innings, other than Hayden Roberts going out there and keeping Charlotte down and giving this offense a chance because we feel like if there’re still outs on the board, we can score runs, and that’s what they did,” Berry said.
Braley walked and Wallner was hit by a pitch to lead off the eighth inning, bringing in reliever Josh Maciejewski from the bullpen.
Slater greeted him with a two-run triple ripped just inside the first-base bag and into the right-field corner, scoring Braley and Wallner and getting the Golden Eagles to 5-3. Hadley then lined a single into left field to pull Southern Miss within 5-4.
Bryant Bowen followed with an infield single, and USM had runners on first and second with no outs.
But Matthew Guidry popped out on a bunt attempt and the inning ended on two, long fly balls.
Sandlin (9-1) held down the top of the ninth, setting up the dramatics in the bottom of the inning when Braley connected off Maciejewski (5-5) for his 16th home run of the season following a leadoff single by Irby.
The ball disappeared into the trees just beyond the left-field netting, and a few moments later, Braley disappeared into the mob awaiting him at home plate.
“Honestly, I had a feeling he was going to leave the yard,” Berry said. “He’s just that kind of player.”