Alabama falters late to set up frantic Friday

Alabama head coach, Mic Potter, center, talks with his players after their round on Thursday at the 2012 NCAA Division I Women's Golf Championships. Alabama began the day with an 11 shot lead that dwindled two 2.

Alabama head coach, Mic Potter, center, talks with his players after their round on Thursday at the 2012 NCAA Division I Women's Golf Championships. Alabama began the day with an 11 shot lead that dwindled two 2.

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FRANKLIN, Tenn. – The lake adjacent to the Legends Club’s 16th green claimed 38 golf balls on Thursday. Too many of those belonged to Alabama players, and for that, head coach Mic Potter has little explanation.

“We had three really good players knock the ball in the water,” he said simply, at a loss for many more words.

The 16th was the turning point in a round Alabama entered with an 11-shot lead. By the time the Crimson Tide’s fifth player, Courtney McKim, reached the 17th fairway, Alabama still had built that to 15. It dropped to two by the end of the day as USC, in second place, outscored the Tide by 12 shots.

That’s the thing about a lead. “It can go away pretty quickly,” Alabama senior Brooke Pancake noted post-round.

Every player on the Alabama roster turned in a higher score Thursday than she did in Round 2. Pancake, the individual leader at the beginning of the day, four-putted for double-bogey at No. 15, then rinsed a shot at 16 for a second double. The senior managed a smile as she walked away from the team huddle, but many of her teammates just looked shell-shocked.

“I made two pretty careless mistakes that definitely killed me,” she said. Pancake now trails co-leaders Chirapat Jao-Javanil (Oklahoma) and Giulia Molinaro (Arizona State) by one.

Potter watched as his players began to hold on a bit too tightly at the end of the day, a mindset that “almost always jumps up and bites you.” Still, Alabama enters the final round of the NCAA Championship at the top of the leaderboard.

“If you told me we’d have a lead of any kind going into the final round on the last day, I’d have been pleased at that opportunity,” Potter said.

USC head coach Andrea Gaston didn’t imagine this scenario in the thick of the season either. When freshman Kristen Park turned professional earlier in the spring, it left the Trojan roster at five players. One of those -- Sophia Popov -- had battled a wrist injury earlier in the year.

“I kept saying to them it’s in their hands how they go about this,” Gaston said. “It’s been a really trying year.”

Gaston, who has two NCAA Championship titles in her 16 years at the USC helm, has been in a similar position before. In 2002, she watched her roster of six shrink to four after the Pac-10 Championship. That team advanced to the NCAA Championship, where it finished 14th.

The descriptor Gaston uses for this year’s squad is unusual for USC: darkhorse.

“This is different for us,” she said. “We’re coming from behind. It’s kind of neat.”

Gaston maintains this team, which entered the national championship courtesy of an eighth regional title and ranked No. 3 by Golfweek, hasn’t yet peaked.

Purdue will complete the final threesome in Friday’s round, a team that finished No. 1, No. 2 in its last two national championship appearances. Three players are missing from that squad, but veterans Laura Gonzalez and Paula Reto remain.

“Last year we had Maude (Aimee LeBlanc) and Numa (Gulyanamitta),” said Gonzalez, who is four shots out of the individual lead. “I was like a follower.”

South Carolina and Virginia suddenly were in the mix Thursday at sunset, too. Both are tied for third with Purdue, four back. South Carolina is a team that plays well in the postseason. The Gamecocks have won two regionals in the past three years.

“You just don’t know,” head coach Kalen Harris said. “We have to go play our game and just see what happens.”

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