BILOXI, MS (WDAM) - The University of Southern Mississippi had celebrated seven walk-off baseball victories this season, including one Saturday that helped the Golden Eagles reach the championship game of the 2017 Conference USA Baseball Tournament.
Rice University turned the tables on the Golden Eagles Sunday at MGM Park before the largest crowd in C-USA tournament history.
The Owls weathered a 53-minute rain delay to twice rally past Southern Miss and win 5-4 in walk-off fashion before 5,216.
Ryan Chandler lashed the second pitch he saw from reliever Matt Wallner over the head of Southern Miss center fielder Casey Maack for a double that scored pinch-runner Kendal Jeffries from second base with one out in bottom of the ninth.
That set off a giddy, postgame celebration as the Owls clinched C-USA's automatic bid to the NCAA postseason, extending that streak to 23 years.
"I know at one point, they were at the lowest of lows, possibly in the program's history," said USM coach Scott Berry, who saw his team post a 4-2 record in six games over five days in the tournament.
"For them to dig out of that and do what they did (Sunday), that says a lot about them."
And for USM (48-14).
The Golden Eagles won the outright conference regular-season championship for the first time since 2013, have won more games than any other team in program history and are expecting to hear Sunday night that the NCAA postseason will be coming to Hattiesburg for the first time in 14 years and only the second time ever.
"We feel pretty confident about that," said J.C. Keys, who gave the Golden Eagles 3 1/3 innings of solid relief Sunday. "That would be big, having the home crowd, being at home, Pete Taylor Park, that would be awesome."
Pitcher Glenn Otto, who came out of the bullpen to win two games and save another without allowing a run during the tournament, was named the championship's Most Valuable Player.
Four Golden Eagles were named All-Tournament: outfielder/pitcher Matt Wallner; catcher Bryant Bowen; designated hitter/pitcher Taylor Braley; and pitcher Nick Sandlin.
Sunday, Otto threw five innings of shutout ball, allowing just two hits. He walked three and struck out five.
"You can see what a difference Otto makes," Rice coach Wayne Graham said.
USM went up 1-0 in the third inning when Matthew Guidry walked, moved over on a bunt, went to third on Mason Irby's infield single and scored when Tristan Gray's shallow throw got away at first base.
Wallner, the C-USA Freshman of the Year, made it 2-0, USM, when he led off the fourth inning by lacing his league-leading 19th home run of the season onto a grassy knoll behind the right-center field wall.
But following Daniel Keating's pop-up that ended the top half of the fourth, play was halted 53 minutes by a sudden shower that drifted away as quickly as it had arrived.
When the game resumed, the Owls tagged USM right-hander Colt Smith for four consecutive hits, including a leadoff triple by Chandler that ticked off Irby's glove after he nearly collided with Wallner in deep right-center field.
Ford Proctor drove in Chandler with a single, and Dane Myers and Dominic DiCaprio singled to load the bases.
Keys came in and got a double-play grounder that scored Myers and a flyout to minimize the damage, leaving the teams tied 2-2.
The Golden Eagles immediately got to Rice starter Matt Canterino, putting the first two men on base on a single by Guidry and an error on a sacrifice bunt that sent runners to third and second.
Otto (6-4) entered, allowing a run-scoring grounder by Dylan Burdeaux and RBI-double by Irby as the Golden Eagles grabbed a 4-2 lead in the top of the fifth inning.
But that's all USM could manage to get on the board, and Rice tied the game in the bottom of the seventh when Darryn Sheppard scored on a wild pitch by reliever Stevie Powers and Chandler drove in Charlie Warren with a run-scoring single.
"We had a chance," Berry said. "We took the lead, and we just couldn't hang on to it. Rice was tough in (its) approach in trying to grind that thing out and that's exactly what they did."
In the ninth, Andrew Dunlap led off with a single against reliever Trent Driver (2-1) and was bunted over to second by Dayne Wunderlich. That brought Wallner in from center field to relieve Driver, and Chandler ended the game two pitches later.