Stillwater-bound Vanderbilt, North Carolina don't let their bubbles burst

Vanderbilt Athletics

Stillwater-bound Vanderbilt, North Carolina don't let their bubbles burst

College

Stillwater-bound Vanderbilt, North Carolina don't let their bubbles burst

After 36 holes of the NCAA Kissimmee Regional, three teams sat tied for fifth on the leaderboard – top seed Vanderbilt, No. 3 seed North Carolina and No. 8 seed Colorado State. Of course, come Wednesday afternoon, only five teams would be moving on to the NCAA Championship at Karsten Creek. Something had to give.

“This means a lot to these kids,” said Vanderbilt head coach Scott Limbaugh. “Everybody puts in so much and it comes down to one final day.”

An 8 a.m. shotgun start began Wednesday’s final round at Reunion Resort’s Watson Course. Players nearly got it all in, too, before lightning and heavy rain delayed play for 30 minutes with groups either done or on their final holes.

Once the final scorecards were signed, though, Vanderbilt and North Carolina received good news: They had each done enough to punch their tickets to Stillwater, Okla. The Rams, on the other hand, finished seventh after a 5-under closing round.

The Commodores shot 11 under behind the play of their two juniors, Patrick Martin and Will Gordon, who shot 5-under 67 and 4-under 68, respectively, in the final round. Martin tied for third while Gordon (T-12) made three crucial birdie putts on his final six holes, including at the difficult par-4 fifth. Senior Theo Humphrey, who Monday had his score (75) not count for the first time all season, shot 1-under 71 and climbed to T-32.

All three players were in the lineup two years ago when the Commodores hosted a regional and were T-4 entering the final round at Legends Club before shooting 20 under and finishing second.

“I had a feeling our upperclassmen would be there for us today,” Limbaugh said.

The Tar Heels posted 10 under thanks in part to a closing 67 by fifth guy Joshua Martin and another strong showing from Austin Hitt, who finished T-3 after a final-round 70 that included a closing double bogey.

“I was actually kicking myself on the last hole because I had no idea that we were well up,” Hitt said.

Yes, Hitt didn’t know where he and his team stood on Wednesday because he, like his teammates, had refused to look at leaderboards. It’s something North Carolina coaches Andrew DiBitetto and Matt Clark tried to do at the John Hayt Invitational earlier this spring. They put away their phones in the final round and it worked early. But on the last six holes they started to look at the scores and Auburn ended up coming from behind to win.

They tried it again going into the final round of the spring finale, the Western Intercollegiate. The Tar Heels were leading and had about a round and a half to play at the weather-delayed event.

“Only thing we said to our players the night before is, ‘Our challenge to you is to put your phones away and just go play,'” DiBitetto said.

North Carolina won by 10 shots.

“Things change so much that you just have to play as hard as you can and add them up at the end,” Hitt said.

It helps that the Tar Heels are a confident bunch. They spent Tuesday night at a hibachi restaurant, joking around and having a good time. A year ago North Carolina was in seventh place, six shots behind fifth-place North Florida, at the NCAA Stanford Regional before shooting 3 under and advancing by a shot over Georgia Tech.

“I had a lot of confidence from that going into today,” said Hitt, who overcame two difficult rounds to post a final-round 67 last year at Stanford.

Added DiBitetto: “We talked all year about being resilient and overcoming adversity and just rally being tougher, being gritty and playing with a chip on our shoulder. We’ve won some tournaments, we’ve had some close calls, but all year long we’ve been learning and growing. I don’t think anybody was worried last night. Was there stress in the room? Yeah, there’s stress on everybody. But there was a self-belief and a confidence that we could get the job done today.”

North Carolina did. As did Vanderbilt, which will now regroup and chase another semifinal appearance in NCAA match play.

“We’re certainly not disappointed with where we are, but I do think sometimes in life you just get to a little checkpoint and it’s like, ‘Hey, make sure your attention is on the right things,'” Limbaugh said. “We have to get our focus where it needs to be. But I couldn’t be more pumped right now. This is one of the proudest moments I’ve had as a coach. Like I told them last night, when things are hard it makes you better, and if we can do what we’re supposed to do, we can be a better team because of it. They went and did it.”

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