GORHAM — Matt Bender had been scuffling at the plate at the end of the regular season for the University of Southern Maine baseball team. But as one of the four seniors, he knew he had to step up in the Little East Conference tournament.

And he has.

Bender went 3 for 4 and drove in two runs Friday, helping the Huskies stay alive in the tournament with a 5-3 victory over Eastern Connecticut at Flaherty Field.

Bender has six hits and six RBI in the Huskies’ three tournament games.

“I don’t want my career to end,” said Bender. “I feel these young guys, if I can get them going, fire this team up, that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Andrew Hillier drove in the deciding run with a sixth-inning single. Matt Correale got the win with 22/3 innings of shutout relief, and Jake Dexter got a four-out save.

The victory lifted the Huskies (30-10) into the final day of the double-elimination tournament Saturday.

UMass-Boston and UMass-Dartmouth will finish a suspended game at 11 a.m. Assuming UMass-Boston wins – it leads 10-4 in the ninth – USM will meet UMass-Dartmouth at noon, with the winner to take on UMass-Boston for the title at 3:30 p.m.

“That was a battle,” said Huskies Coach Ed Flaherty of Friday’s victory. “Reminded me of the old Eastern-Southern Maine games, back in the day. They can swing the bats.”

The Huskies prevailed because of outstanding relief pitching – Tom Fortier, Correale and Dexter combined to throw 72/3 innings, allowing one run – and clutch hits by Bender and Hillier.

Bender’s hit came in a bizarre fifth inning. Eastern Connecticut (21-16) had taken a 3-1 lead in the top of the fifth on a home run by Alex Zachary.

The Huskies then put their first two runners on in the bottom of the fifth, a double by Hillier and hit batter by Zach Quintal. Both moved up on a sacrifice by Andrew Olszak. After a strikeout, Bender hit a slicing liner to right-center. Zachary dove for what appeared to be a diving, backhanded catch – “I thought he caught it,” said Bender – to end the inning.

But Flaherty questioned the catch – it appeared Zachary had reached out with his hand to pick the ball off the ground after he rolled – and, after conferring, the umpires reversed the ruling and put Bender on first with an RBI single.

Again Flaherty protested, saying the runner on second would have scored with two outs.

After another conference, the umpires agreed and Bender had a two-run single that tied the game.

“That was a pivotal play,” said Flaherty. “If we don’t get that hit, I think we’re in trouble. Bender’s come up big for us the last couple of days.”

“The umpires got it right in the fifth, as crazy as that was,” said Eastern Connecticut Coach Matt LaBranche. “I just think it was a difficult situation for the kids. But I thought we did a good job not letting that faze us and staying in there competing.

“I thought this was a little bit of a game that they had some balls that weren’t hit well and fell in, and we hit some hard that were caught. And we couldn’t get a two-out hit.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH