With backs against wall, SC wins first SEC tourney game in five years

With backs against wall, SC wins first SEC tourney game in five years

**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Allen Sharpe**

Entering the 11th inning against Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament on Tuesday, Alex Destino was 0-for-5 and Riley Hogan had hit into an inning-ending double play to conclude the ninth inning. 

However, both players came up huge in a three-run 11th inning that gave the Gamecocks an important 7-4 victory over the No. 6 seed Commodores. 

Hogan's bases-loaded walk drove in the go-ahead run, and Destino added a two-run double to give Tyler Johnson a cushion to work with in the bottom of the inning. Johnson was masterful, striking out eight and giving up just one hit in 4.1 innings pitched to pick up his first victory of the season.

"It was just great to see our team celebrate in the dugout," head coach Chad Holbrook said. "Those moments have been few and far between. A lot of those end-of-the-game moments haven't necessarily gone our way, and to see our guys celebrate a big moment like that (was special)." 

Johnson dominates Vanderbilt 

After the top of the 11th, Destino shared a moment with Hogan, telling him just how important his walk was to spark the rally.

"I was very excited for him," Destino said. "I think that's an at-bat he'll think about when he's laying in bed tonight. I told Riley that's probably the most mature at-bat he's had. That was probably the biggest at-bat of the game. It got me fired up and in a very good mood for my at-bat." 

No. 11 seed South Carolina (33-23) started quickly as Carlos Cortes made the most of his first career plate appearance in Hoover. With one out and Justin Row on first base, Cortes blasted a long home run to right field to give South Carolina an early 2-0 lead. It was a no-doubt bomb, something that doesn't happen often in the hitter-friendly "Hoover Met."

Vanderbilt (33-22-1) was able to strike back in the second, thanks to a lack of control from Gamecock starting pitcher Reed Scott. The senior walked three batters in the bottom of the second, and faced Will Toffey with two outs. Toffey jumped on the first pitch from Scott and bounced it off the wall in right-center for a three-run double.

Just like that it was a new ballgame. However, the Gamecocks kept up the long ball game to snatch away the lead in the top of the third. Row led off the inning with a home run to left field, and the third homer of the game gave South Carolina a 4-3 lead. 

Pitching outlook for Wednesday, Row shines for Gamecocks

Going back to Saturday's regular-season finale against Georgia, South Carolina scored in nine consecutive innings after the hot start against the Commodores.

"These last two games that we've played might be our two best games of the year," Holbrook said. "For what they've been through and the adversity they've faced, that makes me extremely proud."

Gamecocks show fighting spirit in key moment 

After Scott's fifth walk of the game to put two Vandy runners aboard with one out in the fourth inning, he was replaced by Josh Reagan. Scott couldn't get his control under command on Tuesday, and the three-run double proved to be costly.

Reagan did his job and got out of the fourth with the Gamecocks still out in front. In fact, the senior set down his first nine opponents to keep his team in the lead. However, the South Carolina offense was not able to get any insurance runs, and that came back to bite it in the bottom of the seventh. 

Vanderbilt's No. 9 hitter, Connor Kaiser, entered Tuesday's game with no home runs on the season, but he deposited a pitch from Reagan over the left field fence for a solo homer that tied the game at four. 

After a two-out single, Reagan was pulled for Johnson, who struck out Jeren Kendall to end the inning. Reagan was impressive on Tuesday, allowing just the one mistake in 3.1 innings of work.

The Gamecocks put themselves in great position to take the lead in the top of the ninth. LT Tolbert was hit by a pitch to lead off the frame, and was lifted for a pinch-runner, Christian Flint. Flint stole second base on an attempted bunt attempt, and then took third when Row was able to lay down his second sacrifice bunt of the game. 

After Cortes was intentionally walked to put runners at the corners, Hogan grounded into an inning-ending double play in what appeared to be a backbreaking moment for South Carolina.

In relief of Reagan, Johnson was fantastic for the Gamecocks. He struck out four out of his first five batters, and worked around a one-out walk in the ninth to force extra innings. It was an important feat after the Gamecocks in the dugout were devastated by the double play to end the top of the inning.

Johnson then struck out the side in the bottom of the 10th inning, setting up the heroics in the top of the 11th.

With a runner on first with two outs, South Carolina managed to score three runs to take the game. Row's double put two in scoring position before Cortes was again intentionally walked to load the bases. After hitting into the double play to end the ninth, Hogan worked a bases-loaded walk to drive in the go-ahead run.

It was a very impressive at-bat where Hogan laid off some good pitches to eventually earn the free pass.

"He had an opportunity (in ninth) to win it there, and he hit into a double play," Holbrook noted. "He kept his wits about him and showed some maturity. Settled in and had a very confident at-bat. He took some really good swings and fouled it back. It was an at-bat and situation that you normally don't see a lot of freshmen execute." 

Destino then broke out with his two-run double off the wall in right to score two more runs and give the Gamecocks a three-run cushion entering the bottom of the 11th. Johnson closed the door with a 1-2-3 inning, and South Carolina now enters the double-elimination portion of the SEC Tournament. The Gamecocks will play No. 3 seed Kentucky on Wednesday morning at 10:30 a.m. ET.

"It'll take the pressure off of us in a way," Destino said. "Obviously we've got a lot of work left, but we're just going to go out there and play and enjoy each other. Getting to double-elimination is huge."