Rice Owls Win C-USA Tournament
Rice's Keenan Cook connected on the fastball over the plate from Southern Miss's Nick Johnson. He took a step toward first base, then raised his fist high in the sky with jubilation as his shot landed in short center field. Ford Stainback sprinted home from third base and the Rice Owls were the victors of the C-USA baseball tournament.
John Royal Rice Owls celebrate their C-USA tournament title win yesteday
The 5-4 Rice win didn't come easy. Cook won the game with a two-out, two-on shot in the bottom of the 11th inning. Closer Zech Lemond pitched the final 6.2 innings of the game, shutting down a Southern Miss team that had overcome an early 3-0 Rice lead. Rice left the bases loaded in the first and eighth innings.
"I was just ready to hit it," Cook said of his game-winning single. "I knew [Johnson] was going to come at me, so I was just ready to hit it."
This team isn't the best that Rice has fielded in years past, but as the team celebrated afterwards, none of that mattered. The Owls were once again conference tournament champions. And for the 19th season in a row, the Owls are back in the NCAA regionals with thoughts of Omaha dancing in their heads.
"We had done it," Cook said of his thoughts after the hit. "The season's been a tough one, and just to come through in a moment like that, it's awesome."
The Owls won this game the way the Owls always win games. The same way they won games all season. The same way they won games throughout this tournament. There was outstanding pitching, lots of outstanding pitching, timely hitting, some good defense. And there was more outstanding pitching.
Coming into yesterday's game, the pitching staff had surrendered only three runs (all earned) in the last 53 innings. Starters Austin Kubitza, Jordan Stephens and John Simms dominated the opposition during the tournament (all three were named to the all-tournament team), but perhaps no performance was as impressive as that of Lemond, the team's bullpen stopper who entered the game with one out in the fifth and took it the rest of the way.
Stephens, starting on short rest after pitching 5.2 innings of one hit, one run baseball on Thursday, cruised into the fourth inning yesterday before passing the torch to Blake Fox with the Owls hanging onto the 3-0 lead and two runners on base. Two unearned runs then scored, and Fox surrendered a run in the fifth. Lemond gave up the fourth run in the sixth inning, but hit his groove in the seventh and was barely touched after that.
"People pay for tickets," Lemond said. "You've got to make them happy."
Yesterday's game was the first time Rice had struggled in this Conference USA tournament. The team cruised wins over UAB, UCF and Memphis, hitting on all cylinders in ways the team had not done the entire season. The pitching was outstanding, as was the defense, but for once the offense was pulling its own weight. Players were hitting with runners in scoring position, not swinging at bad pitches, and just performing at a high level.