Vance Honeycutt Hits Walk-Off Homer To Lead UNC Comeback, Highlighting Friday’s NCAA Tournament Super Regional Action


Image credit: Vance Honeycutt (Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)

Super regionals got underway around the country on Friday. Here’s a rundown of some of the most significant developments.

1. North Carolina, again, found itself in a tight spot in the NCAA Tournament. And, again, it found a way to win.

The Tar Heels, the No. 4 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, fell behind West Virginia and trailed by two runs at the seventh inning stretch. The Mountaineers had ace Derek Clark on the mound and, not only has the lefthander been excellent all season long, he also has been a workhorse, throwing four complete games. So even though his pitch count was elevated, there was no guarantee that he would head for the showers anytime soon.

Colby Wilkerson homered in the bottom of the seventh to cut the deficit to one run. But Clark retired the next five batters, striking out three. West Virginia was unable to add to its lead, so the senior returned to the mound for the ninth inning, having thrown 134 pitches.

Freshman Luke Stevenson led off the ninth with a home run on the first pitch, tying the game. After a strikeout, Alex Madera singled up the middle to chase Clark, with Aidan Major, West Virginia’s Opening Day starter, called out of the bullpen. He struck out Wilkerson to bring All-American Vance Honeycutt to the plate with two outs.

Honeycutt got ahead in the count and then got a fastball down in the zone that caught too much of the plate. He didn’t miss on the opportunity, blasting a home run deep to left field, a walk-off, two-run blast to give UNC an 8-6 victory in game 1 of the Chapel Hill Super Regional.

UNC is now 4-1 in the NCAA Tournament. None of the wins have come easy. The Tar Heels required a ninth-inning comeback last Friday night to beat Long Island, 11-8, on a walk-off grand slam from freshman Gavin Gallaher. They beat LSU, 6-2, the next night, using two big home runs from Honeycutt. In the winner-take-all game against LSU in the Monday’s regional final, UNC needed a run in the ninth to tie the game and then scored another in the 10th to win it.

While it hasn’t been easy, UNC has faced a very difficult path in the NCAA Tournament. It also just has consistently found a way to win at home this season. It is this season 36-3 at Boshamer Stadium, a nearly unbelievable mark. Its only losses in Chapel Hill are one-run losses to Coastal Carolina and Virginia Tech and an 8-4 loss last Sunday to LSU.

So, even on a day when a lot seemed to be going West Virginia’s way – the Mountaineers had their ace on the mound, got two home runs from Kyle West, who came into the game 1-for-32 in his last 10 games, and took advantage of an uncharacteristic two-error game from the Tar Heels – UNC hung tough and came away with the victory.

“This team, it’s just been how they’ve been all year,” coach Scott Forbes said. “They’ve found different ways to win, and that’s the mark of a good team from top to bottom.”

UNC (46-14) won the ACC title and is now one win away from its first trip to the College World Series since 2018.

2. We last weekend witnessed one of the most thrilling rounds of regionals ever. There were walk-offs galore and six Nos. 3 or 4 seeds advanced, setting a record. Was the price of that much opening-weekend excitement a much more lackluster set of super regionals?

Friday started with a blowout, as Florida State hammered UConn, 24-3, in Tallahassee. Tennessee beat Evansville, 11-6, in Knoxville in the second game of the day. The game was a bit closer than the score indicated and the Purple Aces did load the bases with no outs in the ninth, but it was still a five-run game.

The prime-time games were much better, to be sure. Chapel Thrill produced another walk-off and an overall tension-filled game. In Charlottesville, Virginia beat Kansas State, 7-4, thanks in part to a go-ahead three-run home run in the seventh inning from Henry Godbout. The Cavaliers also had to erase an early 3-0 deficit in the game.

But, in the end, all four hosts won. The series aren’t over but after last weekend’s excitement and unpredictability, Friday felt like a letdown overall, especially with how the day began.

3. Winners of Game 1 of super regionals win the series at a 78% clip. That would suggest that one of Friday’s losers – UConn, Evansville, West Virginia or Kansas State – will come back to win the next two games.

I don’t feel great about any of their chances, however. All four teams lost with their aces on the mound and the clearest path for any of them to win this weekend included winning the opener.

West Virginia was the only one of the group I liked to advance coming into the weekend and it’s hard to see how the Mountaineers do that having lost Clark’s start. They’re now also in a situation where they have to beat the Tar Heels in back-to-back games at Boshamer Stadium, where UNC is 36-3 this season. That scenario didn’t work out for LSU last weekend and the Tigers are a better team than the Mountaineers.

K-State hung tough with Virginia all night and didn’t use All-American closer Tyson Neighbors. Expect to see him early Saturday with the season on the line for the Wildcats.

Evansville showed it’s not going to go quietly. It also saw how difficult it will be to quiet Tennessee’s bats, as the Volunteers hit five home runs. The Purple Aces also will have to on Saturday contend with righthander Drew Beam, who hasn’t been at his best of late, but is still the Volunteers’ most reliable starter.

UConn got hammered and used both Ian Cooke and Garrett Coe, its two all-Big East starters. It didn’t touch its top bullpen arms and still has the reliable Stephen Quigley to start Saturday, but it also now will face lefthander Jamie Arnold, the top sophomore pitcher in the country.

One or both of the Big 12 teams probably wins Saturday and anything can happen in a winner-take-all game, but hosts are 45-13 in the tournament and these four hosts specifically are 17-1. It’s a tall mountain to climb now.

4. Florida State’s offensive explosion Friday broke a few records, including most runs in a super regional game (24) and largest margin of victory in a super regional game (20).

Interestingly, Florida State broke records set by previous Seminoles’ teams. In 2011, Florida State beat Texas A&M, 23-9, setting the record for most runs. In 2017, it beat Sam Houston State, 19-0, setting the record for largest margin of victory.

That’s all good news for Florida State. Less good news is the history of teams that score more than 20 runs in super regional games that don’t clinch Omaha berths. That’s a very specific situation; so specific that this is only the fourth time it’s happened. But those teams are 0-3 in the game following their offensive explosion.

Does that mean anything for Saturday? No. But it’s a reminder that the series isn’t over and statements aren’t truly made in game 1.

5. It was a great day for the ACC, as the conference went 3-0. It now has three teams that are just one win away from Omaha with two teams (Clemson and NC State) still to play.

The ACC has not had more than two teams advance to the CWS since 2008. It could surpass that total Saturday.

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