Backs to the wall, Tar Heels come through yet again
North Carolina still hasn’t been able to put together a comfortable win in the NCAA Tournament. But after surviving elimination games in the regional and super regional rounds, the Tar Heels did show off their trademark resiliency in Omaha.
No. 1 UNC bounced back from Sunday’s pounding by rival N.C. State with a 4-2 win over No. 4 Louisiana State Tuesday to stay alive in the College World Series.
The Tar Heels remained the only team in the country without a losing streak and have outscored opponents 85-30 in 11 games following a loss.
”We’ve done it all year, with our backs against the wall, just come out fighting,” Holberton said. “I think we play better that way.”
Freshman Trent Thornton (12-1) threw a career-high 114 pitches over seven-plus strong innings in his first start since late March and sophomore Chris McCue, Thornton’s former teammate at Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte, recorded a six-out save.
The two pitchers exemplified UNC’s comfort playing under adversity.
“We thrive in pressure situations,” McCue said. “When I was out there with the bases loaded (in the eighth), I stepped off the mound and smiled to myself because I love the pressure situations. They’re my favorite.”
McCue then got Laird to fly out to end the inning. Thornton also got out of a bases-loaded situation unscathed in the third inning as the Tigers (57-11) left 13 runners on base.
“Obviously it was the biggest game I’ve ever been in,” Thornton said. “But I just focused pitch by pitch. I really wasn’t as nervous as I thought I’d be.”
UNC turned to Thornton, who set a school record for wins by a freshman and entered with the seventh-lowest ERA in the country (1.28), because the usual starters went five straight games without getting past the third inning. The righty is now 3-0 with two saves and an ERA of 1.64 in six NCAA tournament appearances.
The Tar Heels (58-11), who set a program record for wins, took an early 2-0 lead on a first-inning home run by junior Brian Holberton, who was moved into the cleanup spot for the second time in the postseason. It was only the second home run hit through seven games at the CWS.
“I told myself he’s going to try to throw a two-seamer in here so don’t get beat in,” said Holberton, who has three of UNC’s four homers in the postseason. “He threw it in and I put a pretty good swing on it.”
The Tar Heels added to their lead in the third inning on a fortunate bounce. After Landon Lassiter led off with a double, Colin Moran’s grounder down the line hit the first-base bag and turned into an RBI single.
It was one of three hits for Moran, the ACC player of the year who came in hitting .212 in the postseason. The No. 6 overall pick in the recent MLB Draft wasn’t the only struggling Tar Heel who broke through. Skye Bolt, who was hitting .188 in the tournament and was dropped from fourth to sixth in the lineup, had a double in the fifth and an RBI single in the seventh.
“I just really reverted back to what got me here, and that was staying tall and taking what the pitcher was giving me instead of trying to drive some extra-base hits there in the four hole,” Bolt said.
Thornton left with a 4-2 lead after walking the first batter of the eighth inning, and McCue finished up to ensure the Tar Heels wouldn’t be swept in their sixth College World Series appearance in eight years. Instead, the Tigers (57-11) left Omaha with an 0-2 record in their first visit here since winning the 2009 national title.
“I’m excited to get on the bus and the players get the experience of win in Omaha,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “You don’t want to come out here and go 0-2 — you just don’t — especially after the year we’ve had. It would be a sour ending, so I’m glad we get to stay.”
UNC next will play Thursday at 8 p.m. against N.C. State, a 2-1 loser to UCLA late Tuesday. The Tar Heels must win three straight games in three days to make it to the eventual best-of-three championship series.
|Frank cf||5||0||1||0||McMullen dh||4||2||2||0|
|Lassiter dh||5||1||2||0||Laird rf-cf||5||0||3||0|
|Moran 3b||5||2||3||1||Bregman ss||4||0||0||0|
|Holberton c||4||1||2||2||Katz 1b||2||0||2||1|
|Stubbs 1b||2||0||0||0||Rhymes lf||5||0||0||0|
|Bolt rf||4||0||2||1||Ibarra 3b||4||0||0||0|
|Russell ss||4||0||1||0||Ross c||4||0||1||0|
|Zolk 2b||2||0||0||0||Jones 2b||4||0||1||0|
|Jordan lf||3||0||0||0||Stevenson cf||3||0||1||0|
DP_N. Carolina 1; LSU 1. LOB_N. Carolina 9; LSU 13. 2B_Lassiter (14), Bolt (14), McMullen (18). S_Holberton, Zolk. CS_Zolk.
|Thornton W, 12-1||7||9||2||2||4||3|
|McCue S (2)||2||1||0||0||1||1|
|Glenn L, 7-3||2||5||3||3||1||1|
Glenn faced 2 batters in the 3rd.
Thornton faced 1 batter in the 8th.
HBP_by Glenn (Stubbs); by McCue (McMullen).