CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- South Carolina had enough trouble recording 27 outs against a potent North Carolina lineup.
Giving the Tar Heels more opportunities to keep swinging hot bats cemented a trip the Gamecocks had no desire to repeat -- back to Columbia and a long offseason, instead of the sunny landscape of the College World Series.
USC fell 9-4 to UNC on Sunday, eight hours or so after it forced a winner-take-all Super Regional Game 3 with an 8-6 suspended victory. The loss followed the same script of the previous two games with the Tar Heels -- USC built an early lead; errors imploded the defense, allowing UNC to creep closer; and one bad pitch put the Heels ahead to stay.
The Gamecocks (46-20) had given their sizable crowd hope they could come off the mat with the day's first win, wrapped in a tidy 34 minutes after USC stifled a UNC rally and extended the season for at least one more game. But with a 4-1 lead in the sixth inning of the nightcap, a tiny mistake turned into a few too many bigger ones, sending the Tar Heels to Omaha, Neb., for the second straight year and leaving the Gamecocks with a bitter taste in the mouth for the third consecutive season.
"It was a great game for a long time tonight," coach Ray Tanner said.
Ahead three runs, starter Mike Cisco humming along, UNC's Chad Flack bounced a one-out grounder to Reese Havens at short. Havens went to his right and tried to backhand the ball, but it skipped off his glove and into left field.
The opportunistic Heels (all but one of their 15 runs in the previous two games had come with two outs) seized the advantage one more time. Kyle Seager smashed a hot shot to deep short, causing Havens to dive. The ball popped into his glove but ricocheted out, again trickling into left, and the Heels (53-13) were in business.
Seth Williams worked a one-out walk before nine-hole hitter Garrett Gore ripped a shot back to Cisco. The ball hit Cisco's leg and skipped into the gap between first and second base, allowing two runs to score.
USC went quietly in the bottom of the sixth and Tim Federowicz stepped in to lead off the Heels' seventh. Will Atwood went 3-1 on him before Federowicz drilled a single to left, which multiplied USC's woes when Flack came up two batters later and smoked a home run for a 6-4 lead.
Seager followed with a bouncer to short, which Havens again missed. The boot was Havens' fifth of the Super Regional, half of his total for the entire season (10) before the weekend.
The Gamecocks only trailed 6-4 and began to rally in the seventh, loading the bases against closer Andrew Carignan. Summoned in the sixth to preserve a 4-4 tie, Carignan seemed to be losing steam when he walked pinch-hitter Robbie Grinestaff and Travis Jones, loading the bases with two outs.
Memories of Grinestaff's Game 1 grand slam dancing in their heads, the USC faithful leaped to their feet when James Darnell lifted an 0-2 fastball high and deep to right field. But Tim Fedroff drifted under it, his back to the wall, and gloved it for the rally-killing out.
"As soon as I hit it, I thought it had a chance," Darnell said. "I put the best swing I could on it, but it was a good pitch."
The Gamecocks got other opportunities, but Carignan wasn't going to put himself in too much trouble again. He got Andrew Crisp to foul out to first with a man on in the eighth and the Heels added two more runs in the ninth against Wynn Pelzer and Blake Cooper, heaping more misery onto the Gamecocks' chances.
Facing a five-run mountain in the ninth, USC attempted to solve Carignan one batter at a time. Indian Land native Harley Lail, who had already delivered three singles and made a spectacular catch on a potential home run ball, flew out to right and Carignan whiffed Havens and pinch-hitter Drew Martin, touching off the obligatory dogpile while the Gamecocks trudged to their dugout.
Darnell, Cisco, Trent Kline and Tanner sat at the table, staring holes into the carpet while they answered questions. They spoke of how disappointed they were to end the season with another Super Regional loss (2006 ended with a Game 3 defeat at Georgia), but said they were proud of the way they fought.
"You get left with a bitter feeling in your stomach leaving Georgia and tonight, the same thing all over again," Cisco said. "It makes it that much worse when you're that close, and we just couldn't pull it out tonight."
"We haven't been a great team," Tanner said, "but we compete, we battle.
"Tonight, we were not good enough."