May 25, 2014
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HATTIESBURG, Miss. - The Rice baseball team rallied for the lead in the eighth inning, then broke a one-run game wide-open in the ninth to claim an 11-5 victory over Texas-San Antonio in Sunday's Championship Final at the Conference USA Tournament in Hattiesburg, Miss.
Already the 2014 regular season champion and the tournament's No. 1 seed, Rice won its sixth C-USA Tournament title in nine years as a league member. The Owls have now won three of the last four C-USA Tournaments.
The latest tourney crown was led by Owl senior Michael Aquino, who went 3-for-4 with a home run and four RBI Sunday. The Woodlands, Texas, native finished the week-long event batting .571 (12-for-21) with nine RBI, seven runs scored and slugging at an .857 clip. Owls Skyler Ewing, Ford Stainback, Chase McDowell and Blake Fox joined Aquino on the 2014 all-tournament team.
In a break from the back-and-forth theme that played out for most of the game, but in a déjà vu like call-back to how the final two games of the regular season series with the Roadrunners concluded three weeks ago, Rice exploded for late runs. In the top of the ninth of a then 6-5 contest, the Owls scored five runs on six hits to break the game wide-open.
Playing as the visiting team in the tournament format, Rice was quickly on the scoreboard in the top of the first inning. Keenan Cook led off with a base hit and hustled to third on a single by Skyler Ewing. Cook alertly dashed home for a run on Michael Aquino's sacrifice fly to foul territory.
UTSA struck back and took the lead in the bottom of the fourth. R.J. Perucki drew a leadoff walk and John Bormann singled. The runners advanced on Jesse Baker's sacrifice bunt, and then another 90 feet on a Rice wild pitch. The runners added a second run on Horacio Correa III's sacrifice fly to make it 2-1.
The lead didn't last long. The Owls charged back with a three-run fifth. Cook lined a leadoff double to centerfield and moved to third on a grounder to the right side. Ewing punched an RBI single through the left side to tie the game. Aquino followed with a home run to left field. His eighth homer of the season, and second of the tournament, put the Blue & Gray in front 4-2.
The Roadrunners scored three in the bottom of the sixth after the Owls hit the leadoff batter and walked another on the way to loading the bases. A sacrifice fly and two hits later put UTSA up by a run, 5-4.
Playing the week-long tournament was a tiring test to be sure, but the Owls still had one more rally left in the top of the eighth. Hunter Kopycinski, who first entered a game in the sixth as a defensive substitute, singled to left. Leon Byrd blooped a single to center and Connor Teykl bunted the runners up, but a UTSA fielding error on the play loaded the bases. Kopycinski scored as Stainback hustled to first to avoid a possible double-play. Byrd scored on a sacrifice fly by Cook that put Rice in front 6-5.
Working in a relief role, Kevin McCanna needed only seven pitches to end the bottom of the ninth in the 11-5 final. McCanna finished with his eighth win of the season. He worked a total of 4.0 innings allowing just one run on four hits and a walk while striking out one. Including Wednesday's tourney victory over heavy-hitting FIU, McCanna won two games in the event with more than 11 total innings.
Rice improved to 41-18 overall. UTSA is now 35-26 on the season. The Owls have now clinched an automatic spot in the NCAA Tournament. The official bracket will be announced Monday at 11 am. Head coach Wayne Graham and the team will meet at BW3's restaurant in the Rice Village to watch the announcement live.