OMAHA, Neb. — Florida is in the College World Series final, which is right where most people in college baseball figured they would be all along.
The second-seeded Gators advanced with a 6-4 victory Friday over Vanderbilt as former Plant High standout Preston Tucker drove in the go-ahead run in the eighth inning to offset a shaky bullpen that squandered a three-run lead.
Florida (53-17) plays defending champion South Carolina (53-14) in the best-of-three final starting Monday. The Gamecocks beat Virginia 3-2 in 13 innings to advance.
For the Gators, the final is the place to be to cap a year in which they were the preseason No. 1, won the SEC tournament and lost back-to-back games only twice.
"You have to feel fortunate," Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "You've got to have some breaks along the way. This is a long grind. This team, from Day 1, its goal was to set out to play for the national championship. That doesn't always come in the end, doesn't always work out that way. But they've been focused, and we're looking forward to it."
Former Alonso High star Alex Panteliodis limited Vanderbilt (54-12) to three hits in six innings before a parade of five relievers blew his 4-1 lead.
"That thing could have spiraled out of control," O'Sullivan said.
Daniel Pigott singled, and Cody Dent and Nolan Fontana reached on back-to-back bunts to load the bases in the eighth before Tucker drove a ball into deep leftfield for a single. The Gators added another run when Mark Lamm's breaking ball in the dirt bounced away from Curt Casali, allowing Dent to score.
Austin Maddox (3-0) pitched the last 1⅔ innings for the win, which was Florida's fifth in six meetings this season against its SEC Eastern Division rival.
"We're happy we're in the finals," said Tucker, who provided the winning margin against the Commodores with a three-run homer in a 3-1 victory earlier in the week, "but we're going to be just as disappointed as if we went 0-2 if we lose the series. So we'll stay focused, bear down at practice and do the same thing we did today — executing some bunting, maybe some hit-and-runs."
Corey Williams had come in to face Tucker, who was hitting .364 in the national tournament. He drilled a pitch over leftfielder Tony Kemp for his NCAA tournament-leading 19th RBI.
"I was looking for a fastball up I could elevate," Tucker said. " … All I was worried about is getting the run in from third."
Panteliodis, the Mets' ninth-round draft pick, retired the last eight batters he faced before he turned the game over to the normally reliable Florida bullpen.
In the night game, Adam Matthews scored in the bottom of the 13th after Virginia reliever Cody Winiarski botched two throws after fielding bunts, sending defending national champion South Carolina back to the final with a 3-2 victory.
South Carolina closer Matt Price worked out of bases-loaded situations in the 10th, 12th and 13th innings.
Brady Thomas singled leading off the 13th against Winiarski. Matthews came in to run and advanced when Winiarski pivoted and threw wildly trying to get him at second on Peter Mooney's bunt. Robert Beary followed with another bunt. Winiarski tried to throw out Matthews at third, but he threw the ball away, allowing the winning run to score.
Gator transfers: Defensive end Chris Martin, has decided to transfer, football coach Will Muschamp announced. Martin, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound redshirt freshman from Colorado, transferred in from Cal in July 2010 and redshirted this past season. He wants to play closer to home.
Times staff writer Antonya English contributed to this report.