COLUMBIA, S.C. -- In the end, the UConn baseball team was just up against too much. Too much talent ... too much tradition ... too much South Carolina mojo. But to reach the highest peaks of any endeavor, one must first be tested against the best. The Huskies' season, and their dream of reaching the College World Series, died hard, but die it did against the defending national champion, South Carolina winning 8-2 before 8,242 Sunday night at Carolina Stadium.
"For the first time this year I can honestly believe we were defeated by a better team," UConn coach Jim Penders said. "We aspire to be the kind of program they are."
The Huskies, in the super regional for the first time, lost twice to the Gamecocks (50-14), who have won 11 NCAA tournament games in a row. South Carolina returns to Omaha, Neb., to defend its CWS title, the school's fifth trip there in nine years.
But UConn (45-20-1) was not outclassed, particularly not in Game 2, which was close until the end. Fighting to force a Game 3, UConn led 2-0 and took a tie into the eighth, when fifth-year senior Greg Nappo threw a first-pitch fastball to Christian Walker, who hit it over the left field wall.
Threatening to break the game open, the Gamecocks were stymied when George Springer, his historic career at UConn coming to an end, made a spectacular catch in center field to save three runs. But South Carolina did break it open with five in the top of the ninth.
"Five years ago, I never would have dreamt we'd be playing in front of 10,000 people," said Nappo, who was drafted by the Marlins last week. "It shows you how far we've come."
The Huskies scored twice in the second on four consecutive hits, the RBI coming from Tim Martin and Billy Ferriter. Though they knocked out starter Colby Holmes in the fifth and had numerous chances to break it open, they could not. Ferriter lined into a double play with two on and one out in the fifth, and Doug Elliot bounced into a DP in the sixth.
South Carolina's strong bullpen, including two side-arming righthanders, Jose Mata and John Taylor, got the big outs and closer Matt Price slammed the door in the eighth and ninth.
"We had good at-bats in the middle innings," UConn shortstop Nick Ahmed said. "We hit some balls hard, we just hit them right at people. It was frustrating."
The Gamecocks put a runner at second in the fourth when Springer and Ferriter miscommunicated on a ball in the gap, then Jake Williams doubled the run home. They tied it on three hits in the sixth.
Nappo, a lefty in his fourth NCAA tournament start, pitched superbly, and when he retired the side in order in the seventh, Penders and pitching coach Justin Blood decided to stay with him, though Walker, a powerful right-handed hitter, was first up in the eighth.
"We felt the way he finished the seventh in dominating fashion, he was the best option," Penders said. "I can live with all my decisions tonight."
Nappo's first pitch was too good, though, and Walker hit his first homer since April 26.
"I left it over the plate, thigh-high," Nappo said, "and he did what a good hitter, like he is, is supposed to do with it."
David Fischer relieved, and with the bases loaded and two out, Steven Neff hit a long drive to center. Springer turned his back, raced back and caught it over his shoulder, then rolled into the wall.
"That catch was indicative of our effort and our resilience," Penders said. "It was emblematic of the kind of player we have in our uniform, and the heart that beats within that uniform."
The Huskies were bidding to become the first team from New England to reach the CWS in 25 years.
"We lost to the defending national champions," Springer said. "I don't think any team in UConn history has ever said that."
If so, it has been decades. UConn's last CWS appearance was in 1979, long before the current 64-team format.
"I can't say enough good things about Coach Penders and his club and their class and integrity," said South Carolina coach Ray Tanner. "Springer's catch in center field was absolutely astounding. We certainly had the ultimate respect for them coming in here, based on how they had to play to make all this possible."
So UConn has had its toes in the water of big-time college baseball - national rankings, lavish stadiums and coast-to-coast exposure on ESPN. Ten of its players were drafted last week, including Springer and Matt Barnes in the first round and Ahmed in the second. A new group will have to be assembled to build upon what this core began.
"We lost a ballgame tonight, but when we do get to Omaha, we'll be standing on their shoulders," Penders said.