Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches

PGA National (Champion Course)

The Loop

NCAA title still in Alabama's grasp, but lead shrinks

__FRANKLIN, TENN.--The bright side says that Alabama has a two-stroke lead heading into the final round of the NCAA Women's Championship Friday, a position__Mic Potter's squad would gladly have signed up for when starting play at Vanderbilt Legends Club two days ago.

The problem is that it requires getting past the fact that midway through the back nine Thursday, the Crimson Tide had a commanding 15-stroke advantage and appeared to be well on their way to claiming their first ever national championship.

But this is college golf, with the game's ultimate prize at stake, a scenario that tests even the most hearty souls. And so Potter must put every bit of the coaching acumen he has acquired in his 30-year Hall of Fame career to get his group to forget how its four counting scores shot a 11 over on the back nine and appreciate while they haven't won the NCAA title yet, they also haven't lost it.

"There is nothing to do but go play well and if you don't, the teams behind us are all really good. They're not going to lay down and let us play mediocre," said Potter after his team posted an 18-over 306, leaving it at 13-over 877 through 54 holes. "We've got to take control and worry about ourselves and do what we can to control our destiny."

Meanwhile USC, 12 strokes back of Alabama in seventh place entering the day and starting off the 10th tee Thursday afternoon, took advantage of the fact its starting five would be finishing up their round on the easier front nine. Making three birdies on the short par-5 ninth hole, the Trojans shot a six-over 294 to close the gap to two and give themselves a chance to pick up the school's third NCAA title in 11 years.

"We sort of got what we wanted, which is to go off the back nine and get it over with," Gaston said, "because if we could kind of hang in there on the back, we knew potentially we could do some good things on the front."

Alabama's back-nine slide brought much of the rest of the field back into contention, with Purdue, South Carolina and Virginia all just six strokes back at 19 over and nine schools overall now within 11 strokes of the lead.

What will be the challenge for the Crimson Tide faithful is to forget just how quickly things started to get away from them. In a 30-minute span, the team shot a collective 11 over on the 15th, 16th and 17th holes.

No one was immune. Brooke Pancake, who was leading the tournament individually at the start of the round and had a three-shot advantage through 14 holes, got to the par-4 15th and proceeded to four putt from 25 feet for a double bogey. She then stepped to the tee on the par-3 16th and hit a 9-iron into the water left of the green, joining teammates__Hannah Collier__ and Jennifer Kirby in rinsing their tee shots.

When Pancake parred the par-5 18th hole to close with a 75, she found herself in a tie for third place with LSU's Tessa Teachman, one stroke back of Oklahoma's__Chirapat Jao-Javanil__, who shot a 70 in the morning wave, and Arizona State's__Giulia Molinaro__, who had posted a 72 despite making a double bogey of her own on the 15th hole.

"I made two pretty careless mistakes," Pancake said. "But I can't ponder on those and let them change my mindset for tomorrow. I've had two good rounds that have put me in the position that I'm in and hopefully I'll have another good one tomorrow and finish off well."

"I think just down the line, one to five, we were hanging on a little too hard," Potter said. "Human nature is to try to protect a lead, and I don't know why it is that way because almost always it jumps up and bites you."

Working in his favor is the fact that Potter has an experienced group he'll be taking back to the North course tomorrow, Pancake, Kirby and Stephanie Meadow all having earned All-American honors during their careers. It will take discipline to let Thursday's play fade away. But that's what championship teams can do.