EAST MANATEE -- Sean Crocker said he couldn't remember the last time he felt so nervous for a tournament.
He and the USC Trojans began their second round of the NCAA Division I Men's Golf Championships on the back nine at The Concession Golf Club, and as Crocker stared down the vast fairway on No. 10 -- the widest one on the course -- all he could see was water and bunkers.
The No. 13 Trojans entered the NCAA Championships as one of the least-experienced teams. Their five players have a combined two matches of championships experience. Crocker, the No. 27 player at the championships, said no one slept much leading up to the tournament, and when he began Day 2 with back-to-back bogeys and settled for par on No. 12 with a three-putt, he began to worry.
He remembered, though, that The Concession is all about playing par golf. So when he got the break he needed on No. 17, a 45-foot eagle putt to push him under par, he and USC could begin a charge to the top of the leaderboard.
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"That helps your score," the freshman said, "being able to get to those par-5s in two."
Crocker finished the day 4-under and, at minus-3 for the tournament, he is 4 back of the leader Bryson Dechambeau from SMU. Rico Hoey, who shot an even-par 72, is a stroke behind Crocker. Jonah Texeira and Bobby Gojuangco finished the day with even and plus-1 rounds, respectively.
Putting has been the key for the Trojans during the NCAA Championships, and Crocker and Hoey's successive dismantling of No. 9 were the perfect example.
USC had slipped back to even after Texeira's last-hole bogey when Crocker wound up with a birdie putt from about 10 feet away. Head coach Chris Zambri will sometimes envision putts for his players, lining up with an imaginary putter -- sometimes he brings a real one with him -- but at No. 18 on Friday he gave Crocker a bad read. The freshman had a hunch about this one, though, and Zambri set him up perfectly.
Not even 10 minutes later, Hoey drained a birdie putt of his own and the Trojans were back to minus 2, two strokes ahead of No. 4 Illinois. Only four other teams are within 11 of USC. Right now, the Trojans are the safest bet to finish in the top eight and reach the match-play quarterfinals Tuesday.
"The first step is get to the last round of stroke play and then if we're still in the lead, even if we do win it from here, just get to match play," Crocker said. "There's no pressure on the team or anything like that because we're underdogs. No expectations."
USF had a clear advantage entering the NCAA Championships with its status as the "home team." The No. 14 Bulls, who are hosting the championships, practiced at The Concession a handful of times during the 2015 season to prepare for a potential national title push in May.
On Day 1, it let USF freshman Claudio Correa, an IMG Academy alumnus, hold a share of the lead entering the second round and gave USF a solid position in the top eight. On Day 2, the Correa and the Bulls recovered from a rocky start to enter the third round in a tie for sixth place.
"This course is going to do it to you," said USF junior Chase Koepka, who shot an even 72 for the second straight round Saturday. "You're going to have a couple of stretches out there where you're not hitting all the proper shots. But if you hit some good shots out here, you're going to get rewarded."
The Bulls will enter the third day of the championships eight strokes behind first-place Illinois while Correa, the No. 74 player in the tournament, sits four strokes behind Fighting Illini junior Thomas Detry after shooting 3-over Saturday.
The top eight teams after 72 holes will advance to the match play quarterfinals Tuesday. The field will first be cut to 15 teams after the third round Sunday.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of these guys and what they accomplished, the way we started versus the way we finished," Bulls head coach Steve Bradley said. "I think our golf tournament was kind of on the line there through the first nine holes, and the way they bounced back I was really proud of them. It was a good effort."
After being led by one IMG alumnus in Round 1, USF leaned on another during the second. Rigel Fernandes, a former Ascender, bounced back from a 6-over first round with a team best 3-under on Day 2.
With Correa struggling and Koepka settling for another even day, Fernandes was the only USF golfer to shoot under par on the second day of the NCAA Championships.
"For him to come out and respond the way he did today," Bradley said, "it showed me a lot about his character, his fight and his heart."