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Cincy, Houston to square off

Cougars exact revenge by sweeping UNCC for a championship berth.

In some ways, the 49ers of North Carolina Charlotte have only themselves to blame. They messed with the conference big dog and they got bit.

Houston came into the Conference USA tournament as the top seed. And after escaping a 4-3 win over Louisville in the opener, the 49ers dropped the Cougars into the losers' bracket with a 6-1 loss.

Houston has been angry, purposeful and unforgiving since.

Twice Saturday it made amends. First by nipping the 49ers 3-0 in the morning game and then beating them 14-2 in the nightcap at Florida Power Park.

The victories vaulted Houston (43-15) into today's one-game final against Cincinnati (35-24) at 2 p.m.

Trailing 1-0 in the second game, the Cougars came alive in the third with five runs on three hits and three walks and then closed off the bewildered 49ers by scoring seven in the fifth.

"Our guys came out a little sluggish at the start," Houston coach Rayner Noble said. "But once we woke up from the nap, started swinging the bats it turned out pretty good."

But Houston's two offensive explosions over the past three games _ it beat South Florida 19-6 Friday _ paint only part of the picture. Houston played great defense, as evidenced by a number of sparkling plays by shortstop Aaron Meleback, and its pitching gave up just two runs over Saturday's 17 innings.

"I really feel that what has gotten us to this point is our pitching and our defense," Noble said.

In Game 1, left-hander Shane Nance, who also is the designated hitter, was brilliant on the mound. The diminutive Nance (5-8, 186) stayed on top of the 49ers, giving up five hits in the complete-game effort.

At one point Nance retired 10 straight hitters, and when the 49ers showed some life, he came up with the important pitch. Trailing 3-0 in the top of the sixth, UNCC's Brad Lamm led off with a stinging double down the leftfield line. But Nance struck out Brian Bowman, walked Josh McMillen and forced Mike Taylor into an inning-ending double play.

The Cougars were no doubt deeply appreciative of Nance's effort because his counterpart wasn't throwing batting practice. John Maine was saddled with the loss, going the distance and giving up only five hits.