USC falls just short in bid for SEC crown

USC's Nolan Belcher delivers a pitch during the Gamecocks game against LSU at Carolina Stadium, Saturday, May 19, 2012.

COLUMBIA — South Carolina missed a chance to win the SEC regular season title Saturday, but the two-time defending national champs haven’t given up on securing one of those eight precious national seeds in the NCAA tournament.

Or winning the SEC tournament, which starts next week in Hoover, Ala.

“I’d like to stick around there and play for as long as we can next week,” Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said after a 3-2, 10-inning loss to No. 9- ranked LSU before another sellout crowd at Carolina Stadium.

The Tigers (42-14, 19-11 in the SEC) claimed the regular season crown. The Gamecocks (39-15, 18-11) settled for the SEC East title when Kentucky and Florida also lost Saturday.

No. 2-ranked South Carolina had its chances Saturday to the cliffhanger end. Pinch-hitter Jackson Slaid and reliable Mason Katz each delivered RBI singles with two outs in the 10th inning and LSU closer Nick Goody limited the Gamecocks to an Adam Matthews sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 10th after Evan Marzilli led off with a double misjudged by center fielder Jared Foster.

“They’re the two-time defending national champions, and until somebody beats them, they’ll be considered the national champion,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “So, to come here and win this thing just makes it extra special.”

The teams split the first two games of the series Friday.

“When you’re in a situation on a daily basis where you expect to win, it’s a sting,” Tanner said.

But national seed talk. And a division title. Not bad for a South Carolina team that started 1-5 in the SEC, losing three straight at Kentucky and two of three to Florida in the friendly confines.

“We’ve come a long way from Lexington, Kentucky,” Tanner said.

Plus, South Carolina got a quality start from Colby Holmes. The junior right-hander recovered from a shoulder injury and an ugly inning in Tuesday night’s suspended game against USC Upstate. He gave up only four hits and an unearned run over 62/3 innings against LSU.

“Everything felt good,” said Holmes, who remains 6-0. “I would have stayed out there longer, but I just wanted to do what was best for the team.”

The ferocious three games against LSU serve as another series of lessons. Six of South Carolina’s starters Saturday have not been to the College World Series.

“It’s definitely tough and this would have been the first ring for a lot of us,” said third baseman LB Dantzler, a junior transfer. “But we just have to bounce back. We might be upset, but we just have to bounce back and practice (Sunday) and get after it.”

South Carolina came into the day at a consensus No. 7 in ratings percentage index rankings, with LSU ranging from No. 6 to No. 9.

Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or on Twitter @sapakoff.

Gene Sapakoff