CLEMSON, S.C. — Steve Wilkerson had let too many chances go by earlier Sunday to let the biggest opportunity of Clemson's season so far slip away in the ninth inning.
The sophomore second baseman stranded six runners as he made the final out in the second, fifth and seventh innings. But he lined a solid shot to center to score Jon McGibbon with the winning run to give the Tigers a 6-5 victory and avoid a sweep to rival and two-time defending champ South Carolina.
The Gamecocks (9-1) lost for the first time this year and ended a 19-game win streak dating back to last year's NCAA tournament and College World Series.
Wilkerson didn't spend much time worrying about the runners he failed to bring in as he came to the plate in the ninth. "I just tried to stay focused and find a good pitch to hit," he said.
Wilkerson's RBI single followed McGibbon's leadoff hit in the ninth. McGibbon was sacrificed to second by Thomas Brittle, setting up Wilkerson's game-winner.
The Tigers (5-4) looked ready to collapse in the second inning as South Carolina led 4-0, thanks in part to two Clemson errors and a three-run homer by Gamecocks freshman Grayson Greiner.
There was no panic in Clemson dugout, despite the worry of most of the 6,039 at Doug Kingsmore Stadium disappointed by South Carolina winning 3-2 in 11 innings Friday night in Charleston and 9-6 in Columbia on Saturday.
Clemson rallied for a run in the second on Brittle's sacrifice fly and two in the third on Richie Shaffer's homer and Joe Costigan's run-scoring single to make it 4-3.
After Greiner's second homer, a solo shot to left in the sixth, the Tigers completed the comeback on Phil Pohl's two-run homer in the eighth inning.
"Hopefully, we can win a ballgame where we get out early and keep a lead," said Pohl. "But a win's a win, especially against those guys. They're a great ballclub and it's big to get a win against them."
McGibbon had a game-saving stop in the top of the eighth when he snared Chase Vergason's hard shot to first to begin a double-play when the Gamecocks had two runners on and one out.
McGibbon's was off in the ninth as soon as Wilkerson struck the ball off Gamecocks closer Forrest Koumas (1-1). He raced around third and tossed his helmet in the air as he crossed the plate and ran into his waiting teammates to celebrate.
The Tigers still lost the season series for the fourth time in six years. But they felt they could build on this success.
"We just kept our poise and kept battling back," Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. "I'm very proud of my team in a lot of areas."
One area is certainly the performance of starting pitcher Kevin Pohle and reliever Scott Firth (1-0). Pohle gave up six hits in five innings, but the four runs scored by the Gamecocks were unearned.
Firth took over in the sixth and finished things out for the win, his lone mistake the second homer to Greiner.
Koumas took over the closer role this season when junior Matt Price, who had 30 saves the two championship seasons, moved into the starting rotation. Koumas entered the eighth and was tagged for the tying homer and for the winning run in the ninth.
South Carolina coach Ray Tanner felt Koumas would bounce back and be ready for when the Gamecocks get into Southeastern Conference play two weekends from now. "This will be motivation for him. I know he's not happy with the results today," Tanner said.
Greiner was South Carolina's first player with two homers in game since Steven Neff did it in a 7-1 victory over Arkansas last May 11.
Wilkerson's hit closed the latest baseball chapter between the longtime Palmetto State rivals. The Gamecocks were bidding for just their second series sweep since 1985 and a sweep over Clemson of the three major sports of football, men's basketball and baseball since the academic year of 1954-55.
Both team's came in ranked in the top 20 of the major college baseball polls and were dealing with the fallout from last year's series, when Leggett accused the Gamecocks of warming their bats to give them some extra pop.
Tanner angrily responded that he and his players don't cheat.Comment on this story
The coaches, who talked and apologized after the three-game set, said this week they wanted the focus back on baseball. They got their wish.
Evan Marzilli's lunging catch in center field to saved South Carolina's 3-2, 11-inning win on Friday night. Then, the Gamecocks got a couple of homers from LB Dantzler and Adam Matthews in Saturday's win.
The Tigers start Atlantic Coast Conference play next week at home against North Carolina. Leggett feels better about his club's fight after this weekend.
"I think that's the best thing we got going for our team right now is we've got a little bit of grit, a little bit of toughness," Leggett said.