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Shootout awaits to get into NCAA Elite Eight

PACIFIC PALISADES, CALIF.--If the first two days of the 115th NCAA Championship are any indication, the final 18 holes of stroke-play qualifying Thursday at Riveria CC aren't likely to resemble some ordinary round of golf.

Try bumper cars instead.

While only two teams within eight strokes of first-place Alabama after 36 holes, 11 schools within five strokes of the cut line for qualifying for match play. (For complete team leader board, click here.) The sheer number of teams still in the mix should leave the final round on George Thomas' historic little ball park is going to be nothing if not a crazy 12 hours.

The Crimson Tide maintained its spot atop the leader board with three-over 287 in the second round giving them a four-over 572 total. Sophomore Cory Whitsett paced the second ranked squad in the final Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll with a three-under 68 while freshman Justin Thomas posted his second straight 70.

"I didn't realize the golf course was playing that hard until I looked at a scoreboard on 14 and I was like 'OK,' " said Alabama coach Jay Seawell. "So I'm really proud of the guys. They really grinded out a good round today when it was easy not to. … This golf course will beat you up if you allow it to. You have to stay tough."

UCLA remained in second place, matching Alabama's 287 to stay four-strokes back with first-round individual Anton Arboleda remaining in the hunt for medalist honors after shooting a one-over 72 to leave him at three-under 139.

With Arboleda and the Bruins wrapping up play in the morning, Illinois sophomore Thomas Pieters posted a three-under 68 in the afternoon to take the individual lead at five-under 137.

"I played pretty solid," Pieters said. "I hit a lot of fairways. Made some good par saves. I didn't miss a lot of greens. Just a steady round."

The lanky 6-foot-3 native of Belgium, who has had eight top-10 finishes in 11 starts this season while posting a 71.85 average, has taken advantage of his length to off the tee, making birdies on five of the six par-5s he's played to set the pace.

He also hasn't let the difficult set up at Riviera get to him. After a bogey on the fourth hole, Pieters missed the green right with his approach shot on the fifth hole, but managed to get up and down for par, holing a six footer. With the momentum built from the par save, he then hit rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt on the par-3 sixth.

"He's really maturing the way he approaches the game," said Illinois coach Mike Small. "He's letting it come to him a little better. … He's letting the ball go in the hole a little more rather than forcing it in there."

The individual race will likely be just as tense as the team competition. Tied with Arboleda for second place is Florida junior Tyler McCumber, who back up a opening round 68 with an even-par 71. In fourth is Thomas, who could not only secure the individual victory but likely wrap of national player of the year honors with a solid performance.

Three others sit four strokes back: Whitsett, Liberty's Chase Marinell and Stanford's Patrick Rodgers.

Surprisingly off the pace, however are arguably the two biggest names in college golf who both came into the event among the favorites: Texas' Jordan Spieth and UCLA's Patrick Cantlay. Spieth looked to be making a charge in the second round, but a back-nine 45 resulted in a eight-over 79, the worst round of his freshman season. At 10-over, Speith is now tied for 108th.

Cantlay followed up a 74 with a 72, leaving him four over and tied for 38th.

"He's hit the ball, he's just missed some putts," UCLA coach Derek Freeman said. "That can get frustrating out here. You just have to have lots of patience and that's what we'll talk about. Making sure we stay patient as we go through the round tomorrow."
 
That same advice would be something those schools with a chance at qualifying for match play will need to heed as well.

*****

The last two years the individual winner (Illinois' Scott Langley in 2010 and LSU's John Peterson in 2011) has played his last round in the morning wave and then had to wait for the afternoon teams to finish up before learning if his score held up. The player that looks more likely to follow that lead: Stanford's Patrick Rodgers. With the Cardinal 12 strokes below the cut line to make it into match play, the U.S. Walker Cup team member will likely be able to play more aggressively than other contenders whose teams are still in the hunt to be one of the Elite Eight.
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