HOOVER, Ala. — The Vanderbilt Commodores mostly breezed into the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game.
That one was anything but a breeze.
Philip Clarke’s two-out RBI single in the bottom of the ninth gave Vanderbilt an 11-10 comeback victory over Mississippi on Sunday and the team’s first SEC Tournament title since 2007.
The Commodores (49-10) surged into the NCAA regionals as a potential No. 1 overall seed, having won nine straight and 22 of 23. They came into the title game with three wins by a combined 25-5 but had to rally from an early 9-1 deficit.
The only other close one was a 1-0 win over Mississippi State.
“We’ve had a lot of games where we score early this year and to be in that situation was something new for us,” Clarke said. “To see us come back from that, that gives us a ton of confidence. It’s really good to have moving forward.”
The Rebels (37-25) were seeking their second straight tournament championship and appeared well on their way with a six-run first.
They had to play six games in six days after failing to get a bye from Tuesday’s opening round, losing six straight before winning the regular season finale.
“It’s been an incredible week for us and man, did they play well all week — including today,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “One of the challenges is to go through this gauntlet of the tournament and get to this point and be able to really compete in the championship, and they did. They gave it everything they had.”
Added Thomas Dillard: “Nobody really expected us to be here. We kind of skidded at the end of the year.”
Vandy surged back with five runs in the fourth, including Pat DeMarco’s three-run homer. That inning made it 9-8 and the Commodores would tie it in the sixth on Harrison Ray’s RBI double.
“Packing it in was never a thought for anybody,” said Ray, who doubled three times. “I think the biggest thought was we were just going to chip away at this lead and we’re going to stay together.”
Ole Miss reliever Austin Miller (5-3) struck out six consecutive batters but was pulled after walking the bases loaded with two outs in the ninth. Clarke delivered Ryan Olenek’s first pitch into right-center field for the game-winning run, scoring Austin Martin.
It more than made up for striking out to end the seventh with runners on the corners.
“I didn’t come through in the bottom of the seventh so I felt like I needed to in the bottom of the ninth,” Clarke said.
SEC player of the year JJ Bleday of Vandy was named Most Valuable Player. He singled, drove in a run and walked twice in the finale, including in the ninth.
Tyler Brown (3-1) pitched three scoreless innings for Vandy, allowing two hits. Clarke went 3-for-6 with three RBIs.
Vandy coach Tim Corbin said the biggest challenge after winning a regular-season title is to find out how much the team appreciates “the value of competition”.
“You can see by the actions of the guys that they value competition,” Corbin said. “They did things well and they put themselves in opportunities that they could enjoy.”
Thomas Dillard and Grae Kessinger drove in a pair of runs each for Ole Miss, while Cooper Johnson had three hits and scored twice.
Johnson hit a one-out double to left-center field for Ole Miss in the ninth. But Brown struck out Anthony Servideo and got Jacob Adams to flyout to right field to end the threat.
The Commodores wore olive green uniforms honoring service members on Memorial Day weekend, something they’ve done Sundays at home throughout the season.