Hopkins' heroics sends Gamecocks into SEC Tournament semifinals

Hopkins' heroics sends Gamecocks into SEC Tournament semifinals

**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Jenny Dilworth**

T.J. Hopkins was not in the starting lineup against Kentucky on Friday, but he's now the reason South Carolina is headed to the SEC Tournament semifinals for the first time since 2004.

The sophomore came off the bench in the seventh inning and delivered a pinch-hit three-run homer for the Gamecocks. It was the second and last hit for the team, but enough to send South Carolina away with a 3-1 win over the Wildcats that firmly put the Gamecocks back in the NCAA Tournament conversation.

"I've never been a part of a game where you give up two hits and lose," Kentucky head coach Nick Mingione said. "That's unbelievable. Obviously that three-run home run was a big hit for them." 

But thanks to Hopkins and stellar performances from four different South Carolina pitchers, South Carolina was indeed the winner. Adam Hill put in a courageous effort on the mound, and Josh Reagan, Reed Scott and Tyler Johnson kept an explosive offensive team off the board for the final eight innings.

"It was an incredible game and incredible win for our team," head coach Chad Holbrook said. "For us to hold them to one run is amazing. If you told me before the game we would only get two hits, I would've thought we only played seven innings (run rule). Our pitching was amazing." 

South Carolina pitching staff stuffs vaunted Kentucky offense

The Gamecocks have had several well-documented late game collapses this year, and have also had to deal with several injuries. On Thursday, Holbrook said that no other team in the country has dealt with the adversity South Carolina has had to deal with. 

Against the Wildcats, the Gamecocks finally caught a few breaks, winning a game with just two hits while also committing two errors. They also became the first double-digit seed to ever make it to the conference tournament semifinals. 

"That's the beauty of baseball," Holbrook said. "You can win or lose a game sometimes on one swing of the bat, and we've lost a few on one swing of the bat this year. It was good to see us get one back today." 

A mistake in the first inning allowed Kentucky (39-20) to take an early lead. Tristan Pompey led off the game with a RBI single, and it probably should've been a double, but right fielder Jacob Olson made a diving stop to hold Pompey at first.

However, the next batter hit a fly ball toward Olson, who lost it in the sun, allowing the ball to fall and both runners were safe. After a sacrifice bunt, Luke Becker drove in a run with a RBI groundout and the Wildcats took a 1-0 lead.

The Gamecocks (35-24) were in prime position to tie it up in the fourth. Justin Row went all the way to second to lead off the inning when Becker's throw from third sailed over the first baseman's head. Riley Hogan struck out, but would reach first when the ball got away from the catcher. With runners at the corners with one out, Alex Destino grounded into an inning-ending double play that maintained the Wildcats' slim lead.

Kentucky starter Justin Lewis kept the Gamecocks off balance all afternoon. South Carolina would not get its first hit until the sixth inning, and that would also be the next time they had a legitimate scoring chance.

With one out, LT Tolbert was hit by a pitch and advanced to third on a beautiful hit-and-run by Row. That was the Gamecocks' first hit of the afternoon, and it put runners on the corners with one out. However, with a 1-2 count on Carlos Cortes, The Wildcats brought in closer Logan Salow, who struck out Cortes and got Hogan to ground out. 

Hill was great on the opposite side for South Carolina, holding the Wildcats to one unearned run through six innings. His best frame came in the sixth, when he needed just nine pitches to strike out two batters in a 1-2-3 inning.

After a leadoff single in the seventh, Hill was replaced by Josh Reagan. In six innings pitched, Hill gave up just three hits and the unearned run to go with three walks and six strikeouts.

"I was a little erratic at first, but I was able to dial it in," Hill said. "They are a great hitting team so I was just trying to pound fastball(s) in and out of sports, and the second time through just throw them some off-speed, and it worked." 

Destino walked to lead off the highly eventful bottom of the seventh inning. Jonah Bride's sacrifice bunt moved a runner into scoring position before Olson reached on a throwing error. Hopkins then came in to pinch-hit for Hunter Taylor, and the rest, as they say, was history.

On a 2-0 count, Hopkins blasted his home run to left field, and the South Carolina dugout erupted as it suddenly took a 3-1 lead.

"It was an exciting moment," Holbrook said. "It will go down as one of the biggest Gamecock wins in SEC Tournament lore, and I told T.J. he will forever be in Gamecock lore now with that swing of the bat." 

Back-to-back one-out singles by Kentucky in the eighth had it threatening South Carolina's lead. A fly to deep center allowed both runners to move into scoring position, and that would prove to be the end of the line for Reagan. He was replaced by Scott, who coaxed a ground ball from pinch-hitter T.J. Collett for the third out.

Scott was able to get the first out of the ninth inning, but after an error by first baseman Matt Williams, closer Tyler Johnson came in to save the day. The junior was able to get a strikeout and groundout to close the win out.

South Carolina advances to face LSU on Saturday afternoon for a right to go to the SEC Tournament championship. First pitch is set for 1 p.m. ET. The last time the Gamecocks were in the semifinals was 2004, which was also the last time they won the conference tournament title.