By TOM ZEBOLD
The Bulls went from missing out on the Big East tournament in 2011 to almost winning it all Sunday afternoon.
USF took a 3-2 lead into the sixth inning of the nationally televised conference championship game, but St. John’s rallied late to take the trophy with a 7-3 victory at Bright House Field.
“I don’t want anybody to be happy with runner up,” USF head coach Lelo Prado said. “I didn’t come here to be runner-up to anything. I want to win Big East championships and get to Omaha one day. It’s a great lesson for these young men.”
USF definitely learned a lot during a tournament week that started with a 7-2 loss to UConn in the first round on Wednesday night.
The Bulls bounced back with a 12-5 victory over Pitt on Thursday, knocked top-seeded Louisville out of the tournament on Friday and took two from the Huskies on Saturday to get to the title game.
USF had never won more than two games in a Big East tournament until this year.
“When you compete and play together, good things happen and that’s what happened to us this week,” Prado said.
Now USF (38-22) must wait to see if something very special happens to them on Monday when the NCAA announces the 64-team field for regional play.
“Look around the country, there aren’t many teams with 38 wins. You’re leaving it up to a committee, so hopefully we’ve done enough work,” Prado said.
USF made a pretty good impression on ESPNU viewers early in Sunday’s ball game.
St. John’s scored the initial run of the game in the bottom of the second on a sacrifice fly by Zach Lauricella, but the lead was short-lived because of USF’s three-run third. Todd Brazeal led off with a single, Andrew Longley hit a one-out single to left and Alex Mendez loaded the bases up with a single to left in the next at-bat.
Luis Llerena tied the game with USF’s third straight single and two more runs crossed the plate when James Ramsay’s potential double-play grounder was mishandled by St. John’s second baseman Bret Dennis.
“I thought we could bust it open for some more runs, but it didn’t happen,” Prado said. “They made some great pitches. They’re a great club and they’ll be tough in a regional.”
USF starter Andrew Barbosa tossed a 1-2-3 third and appeared to be cruising through the fourth until Lauricella turned on a 1-0 pitch and put it over the wall in left field for a solo homer with two outs.
Danny Bethea followed with a single up the middle, but Barbosa got out of the inning by striking Dennis out looking with his 70th pitch of the game. Barbosa’s outing was completed in the sixth inning before St. John’s took a 4-3 lead.
The Red Storm started with two straight singles and a sacrifice bunt by Lauricella that moved the runners over to second and third against the left-hander.
Andrew Loynaz relieved Barbosa and didn’t have much luck, hitting his first two batters and giving up the go-ahead run on a sac fly by Kyle Richardson. Loynaz’s outing was over after he walked Jimmy Brennan to load the bases, but right-hander Adrian Puig ended the inning by getting Matt Wessinger to ground out.
“We needed to score runs today. I knew that was going to be a factor,” Prado said.
St. John’s (37-21) capped off the scoring with two runs in the seventh and another in the eighth inning of USF’s sixth game in five days.
The marathon was all worth it, however, for a Bulls team that made it to the program’s first Big East tournament championship game.
“Hopefully this will be the season that turns USF baseball into something special,” Prado said.
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