North Carolina Beats Houston, Advances To Super Regionals
CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—North Carolina, the No. 6 national seed in this year's NCAA Tournament, did something Sunday night that it could not do as the No. 2 national seed last year—advance to a super regional.
The Tar Heels did so by posting a 3-0 record this weekend as the host team in the Chapel Hill Regional, a run that culminated in a back-and-forth, 19-11 victory over Houston.
North Carolina beat the Cougars in a close, 4-3 game on Saturday night and after Houston defeated Purdue, 8-4, on Sunday afternoon, the rematch was set.
And the rematch made history. The 19 runs scored by UNC were the most runs in program history in an NCAA Tournament game and the 30 combined runs were the most runs scored in an NCAA Tournament game involving the Tar Heels. As if that was not enough, the game also experienced a 53-minute rain delay in the eighth inning with the bases loaded.
“We got that early lead, but it didn’t last very long because they can swing it over there,” said North Carolina third baseman Kyle Datres. "We knew they could, so we were going to have to play nine innings tonight and they kept coming back at us. But tonight the offense picked it up for us.”
With the victory, North Carolina advances to its first super regional since 2013. The achievement should serve as a bandage for the players who are still feeling the sting of last year’s regional defeat.
Michael Busch, who was one of the players that felt the pain of elimination at the hands of No. 4 seed Davidson in 2017, had a phenomenal regional to carry his team to a place no current Tar Heel has been before.
The 6-foot, 207-pound sophomore first baseman posted a five-RBI day on Friday and again provided a big performance on Sunday night. On the weekend, Busch had seven hits, a home run and nine RBIs. For his efforts, Busch was named Most Outstanding Player of the Chapel Hill Regional.
“He’s been swinging it well for us almost from start to finish now,” North Carolina head coach Mike Fox said. “He went through a little bit of a dip, but he just has that knack of coming up with some big base hits and moving the ball and he’s had a sensational year.”
In the third inning, Busch smacked a single to right-center field that scored pinch hitter Josh Ladowski, cuing a rally that saw the Tar Heels score five times to take a 6-3 advantage. It was the first of four RBIs on the day for Busch.
Datres was another big performer for the Tar Heels, hitting a leadoff home run over the right-field wall on the second pitch he saw in the bottom of the first inning. As he rounded third base, the excitement on his face was evident — as if he knew what was to follow.
On the night, Datres had two hits, scored four times, knocked in two runs and stole his 12th base of the season. In three games this weekend, the junior scored six times and contributed five hits.
On the mound, North Carolina righthander Austin Bergner struggled in the second and third innings, allowing three runs as the Tar Heels fell behind, 3-1, in part because of a solo home run from Houston's Jared Triolo.
But Bergner, ranked No. 130 on the BA 500, showed strong composure after the third and did not allow another run in his next two innings before giving up a two-run home run in the sixth.
Bergner, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound, draft-eligible sophomore, used a fastball that routinely sat in the mid-90s, along with a changeup in the mid-80s and a curveball to keep the Houston hitters off balance.
On the day, he pitched 5.2 innings, allowing five runs (three earned) on eight hits while walking two and striking out three.
How Will Mid-Major College Baseball Programs Handle Eligibility Relief?
The announcement of eligibility relief for all baseball players provides an opportunity for mid-major programs, but it's far from a cheat code for teams at this level.
The Cougars added two more runs in the seventh inning, but a three-run seventh from the Tar Heels pushed the lead back to seven. Zack Gahagan brought the big bat, hitting a two-run home run to left field for the second consecutive night.
In the eighth inning, Houston designated hitter Joe Davis continued his outstanding weekend with a moon-shot grand slam off North Carolina reliever Josh Hiatt, who had just replaced freshman righty Joey Lancellotti. It was Davis' third home run of the weekend and second home run of the game, and his nine RBIs led all players in the Chapel Hill Regional.
Hiatt, ranked No. 481 on the BA 500, bounced back to record the last two outs of the eighth inning before fellow Tar Heels reliever Rodney Hutchison, ranked No. 462 on the BA 500, closed out the game with three outs in the ninth.
With the win, the Tar Heels will now host No. 11 overall seed Stetson in next weekend's super regionals.
“This team is amazing,” Gahagan said. “We just keep battling and sticking together and the bond we have is pretty good and hopefully we can keep it going.”