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Houston hangs on, captures title in 10th

Cincinnati loses a baserunner in the eighth on a close call and Cougars go on to win Conference USA baseball crown.

A bunch of little things made memorable the title game of the Conference USA baseball tournament Sunday.

Little things like a wind-aided, opposite-field home run that tied the score late. A crucial call by an umpire on a double play. And, of course, a critical bunt by a slugger.

Only 602 spectators witnessed the Cougars' 7-4, 10-inning victory over Cincinnati at Florida Power Park. But what they saw was textbook baseball by a nationally ranked team that proved why it had won so many games (44-15) against an opponent that proved more than worthy.

But the Cougars, who entered the tournament ranked No. 6 in the nation by Baseball America, were simply too strong and too poised.

They scored three runs in the extra inning and let reliever Greg Runser (3-2) strike out two of the last three hitters to earn an automatic berth in the NCAA regions, which begin Friday.

"I've been telling our guys all along that there are three parts to our season, the regular season, the tournament and the post-season," Houston coach Rayner Noble said. "We've got a veteran team and they know what to do. I don't ever have to say a lot."

Apparently not. Cincinnati's Mark Belcher led off the eighth with a hit and advanced to second on a bunt, putting the lead run in scoring position. But with a little help from umpire David Rogers, the Cougars prevailed.

Cincinnati's Anthony Snowell drove a hard liner just to the right of second baseman Sean Allen, who snared the ball. Belcher was a few steps off the base and Allen flipped the ball to shortstop Aaron Melebeck. Belcher appeared to get back in time, but Rogers called him out.

"It's crucial because the guy is in scoring position," Cincinnati coach Brian Cleary said. "Every time you get a guy in scoring position, it's so important, and to have that inning ended that quickly. Would we have scored? You don't know, but we certainly would have had another opportunity to."

Even Noble admitted how critical the call was.

"It took a little air out of their sail," he said. "It's hard to get a guy in scoring position doubled off late in the game."

Was he safe?

"No comment," Noble said.

Tied 4-4 in the 10th, Houston centerfielder Brandon Caraway led off with a hit and Melebeck reached on an error, setting the table for slugger Jarrod Bitter, the tournament MVP. Bitter, 8-for-19 with nine RBI in the tournament, had not bunted all year, but he surprised the Bearcats with a perfect bunt up to third base to advance the runners.

"The bunt was what I was asked to do to help the team win," Bitter said. "And that's what I did."

Added Noble: "When you can push a runner over like that without hitting the ball hard, it psychologically wears on them."

After an intentional walk loaded the bases, Kris Wilken's sacrifice fly scored the go-ahead run. Houston added two more to ice the win.

"In the 10th inning you've got to test the arm (of the outfielder)," Caraway said. "I got a good jump. I think that broke their backs."

Houston looked as if it would run away with the championship early, jumping on starter Joey List for four runs on two hits and two walks in the second. But the Bearcats scored two in the fourth, one in the fifth and one in the sixth on Craig Tewes' stunning home run. The left-hander lifted what appeared to be a routine fly ball to left. But a strong wind kept it sailing and dropped it into the street.

"I've been hitting to the opposite field a lot this year and that one I got under it the wind just kept carrying it," Tewes said. "I know that if I didn't hit that homer we would not have tied the score or not been in the position to take it into the 10th. But, that's the breaks."

South Florida's Daniel Boyd made the all-tournament team as an infielder.