The No. 13 UCF Knights fell short of their Conference USA championship title hopes after losing to No. 5 Rice, 5-2, on Saturday.
The rubber match of the weekend series was also a winner-take-all scenario, with the top two teams in the conference tied for first place and dueling on the final day of the regular season. With UCF unable to close out the Owls and win the program’s first C-USA title, the Knights now have to look forward with opportunities for redemption in the immediate future.
“As disappointed as they are, and I get it … because they tried their hearts out, we will be a better team for playing this series today in this environment,” head coach Terry Rooney said.
UCF could not overcome Rice on Saturday, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of opportunities. The Knights left 12 runners on base and left a runner in scoring position in eight of the nine innings.
“We had opportunities for two-out RBIs and unfortunately, we didn’t do it,” Rooney said. "In a lot of ways, that’s how you win close games.
“You’ve got to get the two-out RBIs.”
Starting pitcher Brian Adkins had a forgettable outing and was quickly taken out of the game after giving up three earned runs in 1 1/3 innings.
“[Adkins] fell behind too much, the ball was up in the zone and obviously we needed to get him out of there; he just didn’t have it,” Rooney said.
Where Adkins struggled, reliever Bryan Brown excelled, keeping the Knights in striking distance after falling behind early.
Brown had three strikeouts, no walks and gave up two earned runs. Brown got a standing ovation from the announced crowd of 2,131 after pitching his longest outing of his career, 6 2/3 innings.
“Bryan Brown was awesome today,” Rooney said. “[He] threw this team on his shoulders. That is four years of hard work.”
The two runs produced by UCF weren’t enough to overcome the nine runs produced by Rice in Game Two on Friday. Sophomore Ben Lively got the start and exited Game Two after giving up five runs in 5 2/3 innings.
Due to lightning in the area and heavy rain, it took UCF almost 24 hours to beat Rice in Game One of the weekend set. The game started on Thursday night but was suspended in the fifth inning. Shortly after it resumed on Friday afternoon, play was suspended a second time because of weather.
The Knights exploded on offense with an early 8-0 lead, but allowed the Owls to score six unanswered runs, making a game of it. The score remained the same for the rest of the game, though, after Joe Rogers came in and sealed the deal for another save.
With the championship-deciding series with Rice arguably being the biggest in the program’s history, the fan base for the Knights responded appropriately. An announced 6,601 fans attended the series, making the season’s last three-game set the most attended series in school history.
Despite losing two of three games to Rice, the UCF fan response was not lost on the players.
“I’m from right down the road in Winter Springs; [the crowd] was never like that four or five years ago,” Brown said. “I’m going to be proud to be a Knight as an alum next year, and years after that when I have little kids it’s going to be special coming back.”
Moving on from Saturday, Rooney’s club still has Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series on its radar.
“At the end of the day, we want to be one of the eight teams playing in Omaha,” Rooney said. “For us to be one of those eight teams, we just have to play a little bit better in a lot of areas.”
UCF will travel early Monday morning to Pearl, Miss., where they will have the chance to redeem themselves in the C-USA tournament.
In the tournament, C-USA’s top eight teams will be split into two four-team pods. Each team will play three games, with the best teams in the respective pods facing off in the championship game on Sunday. The winner receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Championship.
The pods were announced Saturday night. The No. 2-seed Knights will be in the same pod as No. 3 Tulane, No. 6 East Carolina and No. 7 UAB. Top-seeded Rice will be in pod one with No. 4 Southern Miss, No. 5 Memphis and No. 8 Houston.
UCF will play its first game against UAB on Thursday at noon. The Knights are a combined 8-2 against the teams in their pod.