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Defending champion South Carolina advances past Connecticut

6/13/2011

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Christian Walker might not be certain what pitch he hit, but he knows exactly what he did with it -- again.

South Carolina's sophomore first baseman hit a tie-breaking solo homer in the eighth inning that put the Gamecocks ahead for good and sent the defending national champions back to the College World Series after an 8-2 victory over Connecticut as they swept the NCAA Super Regional series Sunday night.

A year ago, Walker's three-run homer in the eighth lifted South Carolina to a super regional-clinching, 10-9 win over Coastal Carolina. This time, Walker hammered Greg Nappo's pitch into the left field stands for a 3-2 lead.

"I believe it was a change up, but last year, I guess I got that question wrong," Walker said. "Coach Tanner told me to get on the plate, try to hit one out and I got one I could handle."

South Carolina (50-14) secured its 10th trip to Omaha, Neb., and fifth since 2002, with a five-run ninth. It was the Gamecocks' 11th straight NCAA tournament win, a streak that started last year at Rosenblatt Stadium as they won the championship.

Now, they are headed to TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, the brand new home of the College World Series for a try at a second straight crown.

"We're looking forward to playing at the new park and making a mark there," said reliever John Taylor (6-1), who worked 1 2/3 innings for the victory.

The Huskies (45-20-1) led 2-0 entering the fourth and had several chances to extend the lead but could not cash in against South Carolina, stranding eight runners and closing the fifth, sixth and seventh innings with double plays.

"It was frustrating," Connecticut shortstop Nick Ahmed said. "We all just tried to grind it out, but it didn't come through."

Gamecocks closer Matt Price got the final six outs for his 18th save and third of the NCAA tournament.

Price threw his arms high in the air when Connecticut second baseman LJ Mazzilli struck out to end the game, and catcher Robert Beary tackled him to the ground before the rest of the team piled on in celebration. The sellout crowd of 8,242 cheered and screamed as The Counting Crows song, "Omaha," played on the PA system at Carolina Stadium.

"There are not many feelings like this," Walker said.

The Gamecocks will see some familiar faces at the CWS. Southeastern Conference rivals Florida and Vanderbilt -- the three teams shared the regular-season SEC title and were all ranked No. 1 during the season -- earlier qualified for the eight-team tournament.

Nappo (10-3), who last week pitched UConn to its Clemson Regional clincher, held on as long as he could until surrendering Walker's 10th homer of the season.

"I left the ball a little bit up there" on Walker's home run, Nappo said. "A good hitter like him, he's going to recognize that and he did exactly what he's supposed to do."

Connecticut came apart after an early lead in Saturday night's 5-1 loss. But the Huskies tapped into the resolve formed in last week's Clemson Regional when they dropped the opening game, then rallied to victory, including consecutive wins at Doug Kingsmore Stadium against the favored Tigers.

The Huskies again started quickly, Ahmed starting a string of four straight two-out singles in the second that put UConn ahead 2-0.

But just like Game 1, the Gamecocks rallied back. Jake Williams RBI double in the fourth brought in Brady Thomas. Two innings later, Robert Beary's single to center scored in Adrian Morales.

Connecticut had its chances to put some distance between itself and the Gamecocks with runners on in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings. South Carolina escaped each time with a double play.

The Huskies' best chance came in the sixth when they loaded the bases with one out. But Doug Elliot tapped the ball back to Taylor, who started a 1-2-3 double play to end the threat.

South Carolina looked like it, too, might put things away after Walker's homer led off the eighth. But center fielder George Springer, the Houston Astros first-round draft pick last Monday night, made a tumbling, running grab near the fence on Steven Neff's fly ball with the bases loaded to keep Connecticut down a run.

"I thought that catch might lead to something, but it didn't," Springer said.

The Huskies were in the program's first Super Regional series. They last went to the College World Series in 1979. Connecticut is set to lose several key pieces like Springer; pitching ace Matt Barnes, taken by Boston in the first round; and Ahmed, taken in the second round by Atlanta.

"There's going to be a lot said about what we're losing," UConn coach Jim Penders said. "But we've got a lot coming in and coming back. We expect to win now and there's no substitute for that."