UCLA tops NCAA stroke play; field cut to 8

STILLWATER, Okla. – If the NCAA gave out a trophy to the team that won the 54-hole stroke-play portion of the NCAA Championship finals, UCLA would be toting the hardware back to Los Angeles.

Men’s NCAA Championship (Stroke play)

That’s because the Bruins shot a final-round 10-over 298 Thursday for an 8-over 872 total to overtake Georgia Tech for the top spot after the Yellow Jackets shot 14-over 302 and finished at 875.

But the way the NCAA figures it, in this segment of the finals there are eight winners: The eight teams with the lowest 54 hole scores that advance to match play.

And as for the trophy? Its destination won’t be known until Sunday afternoon when one of the eight teams wins its third consecutive match to claim the national championship.

John Peterson of LSU, on the other hand, left the grueling Karsten Creek Golf Club on Thursday with some hardware in his hands. After shooting a competitive course record 7-under 65 the day before, the senior closed with an even-par 72 and captured medalist honors at 5-under 211.

Peterson was one of the early-morning starters, finished his round with birdies at 17 and 18, and then had to wait more than six hours before he could officially lay claim to his biggest victory.

And it got pretty intense at the end as UCLA freshman Patrick Cantlay was two shots back playing the par-5 18th and hit his second shot about 18 feet past the hole. His eagle putt kissed the right lip of the cup and he settled for a tap-in birdie.

Back to the teams: Rounding out the match-play field are host Oklahoma State, which tied for third with Illinois at 15-over 879, Georgia (884), Ohio State (887), defending champion Augusta State (888) and Duke (889), which shot a 5-over 293 to jump from a tie for 12th to securing the last spot.

“I’m very pleased with our performance today, and to come out on top is a bonus,” UCLA coach Derek Freeman said. “Our first goal starting the week was to win stroke play, and we did that. Any time you come out on top is good.

“Now it’s a different tournament, a completely different animal,” Freeman said of match play. “But I think we go into it with some confidence.”

Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler said his team got behind the 8-ball early and then started pressing.

“But the main thing is, we get to come back and play on Friday,” Heppler said, “so I’m happy about that. This is a very challenging course and we finished second in the first part of the tournament, so that’s good.”

Oklahoma State had some of its followers a bit concerned as it started the day in sixth place. But the Cowboys shot 6-over 294 and get to return to their home course where they should attract even larger crowds than the first three days.

“We were five shots off the bubble starting out, but we did a good job of playing well early and getting ourselves off that bubble,” Oklahoma State coach Mike McGraw said. “The main thing is, we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish today. We played well and got to the part in the tournament where all bets are off. You just go out there and try to beat the guy next to you.”

Coming into the final round of stroke play, McGraw said, “We wanted to give ourselves a chance to win (the overall title), and we did that. Now we just move on and keep trying to play as well as we can.”

UCLA will meet Duke in Friday’s opening match. Earlier this spring, Duke won the Callaway Match Play Championship with a 4-0 record. UCLA also was in that field and finished 2-2, although the teams did not face each other.

Illinois will take on Georgia in the next match. Then it will be the battle of OSUs – Oklahoma State, the No. 1 seed of the tournament, taking on Ohio State, at No. 23 the highest seed to make match play.

Rounding out the opening round of match play will be a rematch of last year’s first-day showdown between Peach State rivals Georgia Tech and Augusta State. The Jaguars edged the Yellow Jackets 3-2 in that one at the Honors Course on their way to the national title.

Just on the outside looking in when the 54-hole dust settled was 2009 NCAA winner Texas A&M. The Aggies closed with a 12-over 300 for a 26-over 890 to miss by a shot. Two more strokes back and tied for 10th were Big Ten representatives Iowa and Michigan.

Maybe the biggest stunner of the final round was the play of Alabama. The Crimson Tide, the No. 3 seed, started the day in fifth place, seven shots off Georgia Tech’s lead.

But ’Bama self-destructed early and finished the day with a 28-over-par 316 to finish 14th at 32-over 896.

Quarterfinal matches start at 10 a.m. (CDT) Friday. Semifinals on Saturday also begin at 10 a.m. The championship final on Sunday starts at noon.

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