By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
HOOVER, Ala. — Chad Holbrook admits he and his team were a bit nervous heading to the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala.
After dropping eight straight SEC series, including a regular season-ending series against Georgia, Holbrook and his team were about as down as they could be. They knew their hopes of making the NCAA Tournament were slim. After finishing 13-17 in the conference, they needed a strong showing in Hoover, where they had not won a game in four years under Holbrook.
And there were few signs of that happening.
"I'll be honest with you, it was a long drive down here," Holbrook said on Friday. "Just because we know how many opportunities that we missed.
"We've had some tough losses and I just wanted so bad for them to experience success, because they deserve it."
As the No. 11 seed in the 12-team tournament, South Carolina faced long odds of winning it. And with single-elimination in the first round, they were in a must-win situation right off the bat.
But they scored a dramatic 7-4 11-inning win over Vanderbilt in Round 1 that sparked an improbable run. Though the fell to Kentucky 7-2 in Round 2, they had their aces — Wil Crowe and Adam Hill — available for Games 3 and 4, and they took advantage. They pounded Missouri 10-2 behind Crowe in Game 3, and then beat Kentucky 3-1 with Hill on a dramatic pinch-hit, three-run homer by TJ Hopkins to make it to the semi-finals for the first time since 2004. It marked the first time in tournament history that a double-digit seed had won three games to make it to the semi-finals.
With their pitching staff depleted, they lost to LSU 11-0 on Saturday. But the Gamecocks proved in the SEC Tournament they can win big games with their backs to the wall and, perhaps more importantly, that they can win close games, something they struggled to do in the regular season.
"We showed a lot of grit and fight," junior DH Alex Destino said. "A lot of people kinda had the book closed on the Gamecocks coming down here, told us we couldn't do it in Hoover. We kinda let that be our motivation.
"We were tired of hearing how bad we were all year. We showed a lot of fight and played some extremely good teams. I think we definitely made some noise and the team is excited about that."
Though they played shaky defense at times — four errors in Game 2 against Kentucky — they enjoyed a power surge offensively and got some clutch pitching performances. They hit eight home runs, including four against Missouri, and pounded out 14 hits in Game 3. Crowe and Hill delivered two excellent starts, and Tyler Johnson was magnificent, shutting out Vanderbilt for four innings in Game 1 and coming back on two days rest to get a huge save in Game 4 against Kentucky.
Though they struggled in Game 2 against Kentucky and got blown out by LSU, they played looser and with more confidence than they had in weeks.
"Some things went our way early in the tournament," Holbrook said. "We were on the brink of our season ending against Vanderbilt and the kids wouldn't give up and they kept fighting.
"They played a lot more relaxed down here for some reason. They weren't as anxious and as uptight. I think they just took a deep breath and played ball and put ourselves in position to win some games down here, and we haven't always played great down here."
But did they play well enough to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament? They have the credentials in RPI and strength of schedule, but it likely depends on which variable the selection committee puts more emphasis on — the eight series losses and 13-17 conference record in the regular season, or the surprising run in the tournament.
"I feel good about our team if we are able to keep playing with the pitchers we have," Holbrook said after the LSU loss Saturday. "Having Tyler back this week showed we can beat anybody any day.
"We competed each and every weekend we played this year. Maybe a pitch here or a pitch there … there were six or seven pitches — not six or seven games, but six or seven pitches — when we were in position to win the series on the road. I know we are capable, and there is doubt in my mind that if we are in the tournament, we can win a Regional."
The tournament run was key because South Carolina finally proved it can win two of three and three of four games, which is what it will take to succeed in the postseason. It won two close games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky, and it showed it has both the offense and the pitching to play with the best teams in the country.
"We can't hang our heads," Destino said after Saturday's loss. "We have a lot to be proud of out of this tournament. I think we turned a lot of heads in Hoover."