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The University of South Carolina claimed the 23rd spot in the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship by winning the Southeastern Rugby Conference qualifier yesterday in Knoxville, Tenn. The Gamecocks defeated a tough Kentucky side 7-5 to return to Philadelphia in June.

The field was divided into three groups of three teams. South Carolina took care of business in pool play, blanking both Georgia and Florida to earn the overall one seed in the cup rounds. In fact, the Gamecocks did not yield a point until the final match.

In the cup quarters, USC shut out Mississippi State and then took on their rivals, Tennessee. While Tennessee has gotten the better of USC in 15s the last few years, in 7s South Carolina has been the team to beat. The Game Cocks cruised through the qualifier last year and got the better of Tennessee this year with a 17-0 win.

USC met Kentucky in the final. The Wildcats had an impressive run in 15s, winning the conference for the first time and were hoping to make their first appearance at the Penn Mutual CRC. UK did something no other team did, scoring first to take a 5-0 early lead. Kentucky turned over a ruck and got the ball wide for the games opening score.

Chris Harrell, last year’s SCRC 7s player of the year, showed his play making ability to take the lead. After long phase play inside their own half, the senior split a gap in the middle of the field and outpaced the Kentucky defense. With the conversion, the Gamecocks led 7-5. The Gamecocks had another opportunity deep in Kentucky territory but the ball was held up in the try zone as time expired on the half. 

The second half was a real grind it out affair. South Carolina was careless with the ball and spent much of the half defending. In one instance, Jacob Powers chased down a Kentucky player, forcing a knock on right outside the goal line to prevent a score.

“The second half was brutal. It was a very intense game. We probably had more handling errors in that second half than we had all season,” said USC coach Steve Darnell.

South Carolina’s defense held strong despite relentless pressure. Team defense is something that has been stressed this season and Saturday it was executed nearly flawlessly.

“Defense was great throughout the day. They were very patient, applied pressure when they should have and made their tackles. Defense has been a real stress all season so I was very happy about that,” Darnell added.

South Carolina will be looking to improve upon a bowl championship at the CRC last season. After a tough first day, the Gamecocks won three games on Sunday to take home some hardware. This year, however, they are gunning for the cup rounds.

“We want to build on our 4-2 record from last year. We want to try and crack into the cup rounds. I think this might be the year because we have a good seasoned squad that can seize that opportunity,” Darnell concluded.

Only one spot remains open at the Penn Mutual CRC. That team will be determined at the Heart of America Qualifier next weekend in Kansas City.