May 26, 2018 10:54:37 PM
BILOXI -- The No. 17 and top-seeded Southern Mississippi baseball team found itself on the other side of the looking glass Saturday night at MGM Park.
A year after the Golden Eagles rallied in the bottom of the ninth inning with a walk-off home run against Charlotte to force a win-or-go-home game, the 49ers returned the favor on the fourth day of Conference USA Championship.
Second baseman Tommy Bullock's three-run, walk-off home run capped a four-run rally in the bottom of the ninth inning as the fourth-seeded 49ers topped the top-seeded Golden Eagles 7-4.
With their first victory against USM since 2014, Charlotte (34-23) forced a second game against USM (41-16) at 9 a.m. Sunday. The winner will advance to the Conference USA title game scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday.
The Southern Miss-Charlotte winner will face the winner of Saturday's late rematch between third-seeded Florida Atlantic and seventh-seeded Rice.
FAU defeated Rice 7-4 earlier Saturday to force the second game between the two in the double-elimination bracket.
In 2017, Southern miss had come out of the elimination bracket to face an unbeaten Charlotte, and had to beat the 49ers twice in order to play for the C-USA baseball crown.
Taylor Braley hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning as the Golden Eagles scored five runs in their final two at-bats to claim a 6-5 victory against the 49ers in the initial game.
Flash forward a year. The unbeaten Golden Eagles were clinging to a 4-3 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth inning and Charlotte, which had come out of the elimination bracket, was down to its last three outs.
But Todd Elwood chopped an infield single against USM reliever J.C. Keys (3-5), moved to second, the third on a pair of wild pitches.
After third baseman Jackson Mims walked, left fielder Drew Ober hit a grounder to the right side that scored Elwood with the tying run and sent Mims to second.
A single by shortstop Hunter Jones singled sent Mims to third and Keys to the dugout in favor of Matt Wallner.
Bullock, who had one home run coming in to the game, lifted Wallner's second pitch over the wall in left field, the same spot Braley had hit his homer the year before.
"It's deja vu or whatever you call it," Southern Miss baseball coach Scott Berry said. "Braley does it to them, and (Bullock) does it to us. It's baseball.
"It's a great game, it really is, because you never know what's going to happen..
The 49ers rallied from two-run deficits twice, using seven pitchers to contain Southern Miss' offensive outbursts.
Southern Miss wound up with nine hits and received eight walks from Charlotte pitchers. But the Golden Eagles stranded 14 baserunners, including nine in scoring position.
"We missed on some opportunities there early, and their pitchers minimized some things," Berry said.
In the first inning, USM were the beneficiaries of four walks, including designated hitter Daniel Keating's free pass with the bases loaded. But the Golden Eagles left the inning with the bases loaded and 1-0 lead.
USM took a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning when Keating singled, was sacrificed to second and scored on Matthew Guidry's single.
But the Golden Eagles stranded runners at third with one out in the fourth inning and second and third with no outs in the fifth inning.
By then, the 49ers had tied the game 2-2. Catcher Zack Smith caught hold of Walker Powell offering and smashed it off the scoreboard past the right-center field fence to get Charlotte within 2-1 and a run-scoring single by center fielder Reece Hampton gave the 49ers its second run.
USM surged back ahead in the sixth. Shortstop LeeMarcus Boyd singled with one out and scored when left fielder Gabe Montenegro tripled into the right-field corner. Moments later, Montenegro scored on a wild pitch to give the Golden Eagles a 4-2 lead.
Charlotte scored an unearned run in the seventh inning to set up the ninth-inning drama.
Powell pitched well for USM, allowing three runs (two earned) on eight hits. He walked no one and struck out five.
Phillip Perry (2-3) picked up the win by getting the final two outs in the top of the ninth inning.
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