Miraculous finish helps Rebels advance in NCAA golf championship

With one swing of his 7-iron, Kurt Kitayama gave UNLV the miracle it needed Thursday in the NCAA Men’s Golf Championship.

As the team faced elimination, the sophomore from Chico, Calif., hit his second shot at the par-4 No. 9 at the Capital City Club in Milton, Ga., into the hole from 208 yards for an eagle, boosting the Rebels’ third-round score to 8-under-par 272 for a total of 2-over 842.

That shot eventually put UNLV in a four-way tie for the final three spots of the match-play single-elimination portion of the tournament. The top eight teams in the 30-team field advance.

And after a sudden-death playoff with New Mexico, Texas A&M and Arizona State, the Rebels — who were tied for 21st after the second round, 10 shots out of eighth place — had completed an improbable comeback that will allow them to compete for the school’s second national championship. Mountain West rival New Mexico and Arizona State also survived the playoff.

While Kitayama made the miracle shot, UNLV’s season would be over if not for the steady play of Kevin Penner, who finished tied for second among individuals. The senior shot a final-round 2-under 68 to finish at 6-under 204, three strokes behind California senior Max Homa.

Penner will lead the seventh-seeded Rebels into today’s quarterfinal match against No. 2 Georgia Tech at 8:30 a.m. In other matches, No. 1 California, which won stroke play by six shots at 16-under 824, will face No. 8 Arizona State; No. 3 Alabama will meet No. 6 New Mexico; and No. 4 Texas will play No. 5 Illinois.

“This is one of the great days in the history of the Rebel golf program,” coach Dwaine Knight said. “To come back from where we were and to make it to the Elite Eight, I can’t tell you how proud I am of these guys.

“And Kitty, that was indeed the miracle we were looking for.”

Kitayama said he was merely trying to give himself a chance to make birdie.

“I was looking to get it on the green, and I couldn’t see where the ball went,” he said. “I thought for a moment I had missed (the green). But then I heard the roar from the crowd, and it was an amazing feeling.

“I had no idea how big that shot would be because I didn’t know what the other guys were doing. I think it was an omen that we belonged here (in match play).”

The four teams played sudden death on five separate holes, with the top four scores from each team counting. The Rebels, New Mexico and Arizona State finished at par, one shot better than Texas A&M.

“It seemed like forever,” Knight said of the time it took to compute the scores. “Now that we know we’re in, we’re going to refocus and get ready for Tech.”

Before the round, Knight had said UNLV would need a miracle to advance. Perhaps with the pressure off, his players were able to relax and perform the way their coach knows they can.

The Rebels steadily moved up the leaderboard on Capital City’s Crabapple Course, from 21st to 13th to a tie for eighth and ultimately the four-way tie for sixth while posting the day’s best round.

“It was a total team effort,” Knight said. “It was nice to see a round come together for them where everyone contributed.”

Penner was the only UNLV player to break par all three days, but he got plenty of help Thursday. Kitayama shot 3-under 67. Freshman AJ McInerney recovered from a second-round 77 to finish with a 68, and Carl Jonson shot 69 after a second-round 74.

“It was remarkable to see us bounce back,” Knight said. “But this is a tough, resilient group, and we’ve really come together as a team the last 40 or so days.”

Still, it was a long day for the Rebels. After finishing their round, they waited anxiously as the rest of the schools completed their rounds. Then, four hours after they left the course, they found out they were still alive.

“It was four of the tensest hours I’ve spent, not knowing whether you were in or out,” Knight said. “But we’re in, and we’re excited about having the chance to play for a national championship.”

Kitayama said the team has momentum and is eager to get back on the course.

“This was our goal, to put ourselves in match play, where anything can happen,” he said. “Everyone’s pretty fired up, and we’re going to try and keep it going.”

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.