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Rice, UTSA set for C-USA Tournament title showdown

Rice and UTSA will square off in the Conference USA title game Sunday in Hattiesburg, Miss. An Owls victory would give the school six tournament titles in the last nine years.
Rice and UTSA will square off in the Conference USA title game Sunday in Hattiesburg, Miss. An Owls victory would give the school six tournament titles in the last nine years.
Conference USA

The respected veteran leader versus the upstart new challenge is one way to describe today’s Conference USA Tournament championship game

After four days of tournament baseball in Hattiesburg, Miss., the top-seeded Rice Owls (40-18) will face the UTSA Roadrunners (35-25) at 1 p.m. CST Sunday. The winner receives an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

The Owls are tournament bound regardless, and a good candidate to host a regional when the NCAA announces them later today. No. 7 seed UTSA likely needs to beat Rice to land in the field of 64.

The two teams met May 9-11 in San Antonio. UTSA won the opening game 4-2 before Rice’s offense got jumpstarted in 11-3 and 11-2 wins to complete the series. Michael Aquino finished off the Roadrunners by hitting a ninth inning grand slam in the series finale.

Both teams entered Saturday 2-0 in the C-USA Tournament, meaning they needed just one more win to reach the title game. Rice opened with a 9-2 win over FIU and then conquered Middle Tennessee State 4-2. The Owls held a 2-1 lead Saturday morning against Old Dominion after Leon Byrd scored on Kirby Taylor’s single.

Zach Lemond, who returned to the Rice pitching staff for the tournament, gave up an RBI single in the bottom of the seventh. ODU won the game in the bottom of the ninth when Rice pitcher Trevor Teykl threw away a dribbler, allowing P.J. Higgins to score.

“We were playing a great opponent and it was another a well-pitched, well-played, well-coached game,” ODU coach Chris Finwood said. “We pitched just good enough and got a break there in the bottom half of the ninth. It’s funny how baseball works. We hit a rocket to lead off the inning that gets caught that might have been a double, and a ball that doesn’t go 50 feet wins the game for us.”

The Monarchs win meant the team would face Rice again Saturday afternoon to decide who advances. The most impactful plate appearance of the game belonged to Rice DH Chase McDowell, who had pitched in the morning game. His 3-RBI double in the fifth inning gave Rice the 5-3 lead. McDowell then came home on a John Clay Reeves single.

“He was exhausted from this morning,” Rice coach Wayne Graham said of McDowell. “But he came back and got that big blow for us and it almost went out of the park.”

Jon Duplantier pitched well as the starter, but with a 3-run lead, Graham brought in Matt Ditman in the bottom of the fifth. The sophomore from Richmond gave up two runs on five hits the rest of the way. Rice won the game 7-5.

“My thought process, when I came in, was just to pitch every inning and get the next guy out,” Ditman said. “I knew we would get some runs. It was just a matter of time.”

The bad news was the Rice defense. The Owls committed six games in the second game alone. Graham said it possibly the worst defensive effort of the year.

The Roadrunners also had to play two games Saturday. They lost 8-7 to host Southern Mississippi, before shutting out the Eagles in the rematch, 7-0, Saturday evening. Justin Anderson earned the victory with eight shutout innings.

Both teams are looking for second straight conference tournament crowns. UTSA won the WAC Tournament title last season before moving to C-USA. Rice, the 2014 regular season champion, won the C-USA Tournament in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2013.