CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—North Carolina, the No. 1 overall national seed in the NCAA tournament, didn’t dominate its first regional game Friday night at Boshamer Stadium against No. 4 seed Canisius. It survived it, winning 6-3.
And that suited coach Mike Fox just fine.
“It was a tough, hard-fought game for us. Give credit to Canisius, they gave us all we could handle and we just grinded out a win,” Fox said. “I don’t think we played not to lose tonight, I think you have to give (Canisius) credit certainly making plays. I was really impressed with their team.”
The Griffins (42-16), champion of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, would have made more of an impression had they had more success with runners on base. They stranded 14 runners, including leaving the bases loaded the first and second innings as well as the eighth. They pushed across only one run in those three innings, however, and fall into an elimination game Saturday against Florida Atlantic. The Tar Heels (53-8) play Towson in the nightcap.
The first two instances, according to Canisius coach Mike McRae, made the Griffins confident. They were getting to Tar Heels starter Benton Moss, though they scratched out only one run in the two frames. They wound up getting 11 baserunners off the sophomore righthander in just 4 ⅓ innings with six singles three walks and two hit batsmen, adding two runs in the fifth to close within 4-3.
Then in the eighth, the Griffins loaded the bases again, this time off North Carolina freshman closer Trent Thornton with two singles and another HBP. Thornton was able to bear down, though, and strike out catcher Brooklyn Foster and third baseman Connor Panas, both looking.
“Coming in in relief, you don’t really want the bases loaded,” Thornton said. “I needed to slow the inning down with the bases loaded to get those two strikeouts to get out of the inning and get the offense going. I was speeding the game up [at the point], but that’s not really what you want that late in the game so I just had to take a deep breath off the mound, collect yourself and go after it.”
North Carolina got two insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth and finally chased Canisius’ starter, Garrett Cortright. Thornton went after the Griffins again in the ninth with three more strikeouts for his seventh save.
“I definitely think confidence built as the game went on,” Canisius right fielder Ryan Coppinger said. “I thought in the eighth inning our confidence was really high in terms of getting bases loaded with one out. Unfortunately, we just weren’t able to punch one through there.”
North Carolina punched through three in the first to take early control against Cortright, with run-scoring doubles by Cody Stubbs and Brian Holberton, the latter a two-run double. But the Tar Heels weren’t completely sharp, having runners thrown out at the plate in the second and third innings, lining into a double play in the fourth and having a runner caught stealing in the sixth.
They weren’t perfect, but they had enough to hold off Canisius.