COLUMBIA -- The capacity crowd, comprised mostly of South Carolina fans, might have actually allowed themselves to feel some confidence in the moment.

Down two runs in the fourth, the Gamecocks' best two hitters were coming up with the bases loaded after chasing Florida's starting pitcher. What more could you ask for, if you're a USC supporter, than Whit Merrifield and Jackie Bradley Jr. batting for you in a big spot?

But Gators senior reliever Jeff Barfield struck out by Merrifield and Bradley to quiet the majority of the 8,188 fans at Carolina Stadium.

It was the moment, albeit early on, that defined No. 4 Florida's 3-2 victory against No. 6 South Carolina in the first night of this best-of-three series that will determine the Southeastern Conference baseball champion.

"You always want to be up in that position," said Merrifield. "It's part of the game, though. It happens. You just learn and move on."

South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said, with some intensity in his voice, that he'd want Merrifield (.336) and Bradley (.354) -- easily the team's toughest outs -- up there again in that setting.

They will get their chances, perhaps, tonight as the teams play again, with the SEC crown on the line.

Florida (39-12, 21-7 SEC) is now a victory away against the Gamecocks (42-12, 20-8) from clinching the league title.

South Carolina will turn tonight (7 p.m., Fox Sports South) to junior right-hander Sam Dyson (5-4, 3.79 ERA) to be the stopper. Florida will send freshman right-hander Hudson Randall (6-3, 2.96) to the mound.

"It doesn't feel real good right now," Tanner said, "but we'll run Dyson out there and see if we can even this thing up."

Dyson, who has the staff's best stuff, threw a shutout at Arkansas last week as part of the team's sweep there. He is the league's reigning pitcher of the week.

Gamecocks ace Blake Cooper did his part Friday, going 6 2/3 innings and allowing three runs. But it wasn't enough to keep Cooper (10-1) from dropping his first decision -- and the Gamecocks from losing the opening game of an SEC series for the first time this year.

"We'll be energized and ready for (today)," said Gamecocks first baseman Jeff Jones, who homered in the fifth to register the only run in 5 2/3 innings against the Florida bullpen.

There's a reason the Gators are 29-4 on the year when grabbing the lead first.

The conference's best pitching and defensive teams pitched well and played solidly in the field. In short, the Gamecocks and Gators looked like the best two teams in the league -- those on a course with national seeds in the upcoming in the NCAA tournament.

Florida was just a smidge better Thursday. Especially once the Gators were able to trot out closer Kevin Chapman.

Entering with a 1.26 ERA and opponents hitting .185 against him in 35 2/3 innings, Chapman got the final six outs of the game to pick up his ninth save of the season.

Merrifield got the best swing of the night against Chapman, sending a 3-2 pitch into deep right field, but it drifted foul, taking with it USC's faint chances of scoring against the dominant lefty.

Two pitches later, Merrifield popped out in foul ground.

"We had our chances," Tanner said.

Now in a backs-against-the-wall situation, there are few chances left where the SEC title is concerned.

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com, check out the Gamecocks blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/gamecocks and follow him on Twitter (@gamecocksblog).