The Diamond Heels didn’t waste much time letting the audience know they were in for a treat, as Kyle Datres went yard on the second pitch of the game. The scoring explosion continued all night long in an entertaining rematch between the Tar Heels and the Cougars of Houston, but the Heels answered every Houston scoring burst with one of their own en route to a 19-11 (yes, you read that right) victory that sent them through to the Super Regionals of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013, and without a loss to boot.
The opening at-bat was far from the only time Datres crossed home, as he scored five runs on the night. As you might expect from a 19-run day, a lot of Tar Heels excelled with the bat. Michael Busch had an excellent outing as has become usual recently, going 3-4 with two walks. He scored four runs and batted in 4 more, increasing his team lead. Ike Freeman also stood out, adding 3 RBI in a 3-6 performance. He has batted in a run in 8 straight games. Zach Gahagan added to the night’s fireworks in the seventh inning with a two-run shot over left field that was the highlight of a 3-4 line from him.
Houston has made a name for itself this season for being resilient and coming back from big deficits, and they proved themselves in this game. Keeping in mind that this was their third game in 24 hours, the Cougars did a remarkable job of keeping themselves in the game. After Datres’ opening score, Houston scored 3 runs in the 2nd and 3rd frames for a 3-1 lead entering the bottom of the third. Then, the Heels’ bats came alive, as they scored 5 runs in the 3rd and 3 in the fourth for what looked to be a commanding 9-3 lead. After a scoreless 5th, Houston really got into gear and looked determined to make things interesting. The Cougars’ Drew Minter crushed a two-run homer in the top of the 6th that suddenly made the Heels’ lead look a lot less safe.
The Heels were up to the challenge, however, and continued to be so throughout the rest of the game. UNC answered those two runs in the same inning, when Minter’s throw home on a sac fly went crashing into the UNC dugout to score one more than the Heels intended. The teams traded punches all night, the biggest exchange coming in the form of an 8th-inning grand slam for Houston that brought them within three runs. UNC’s response? Load the bases and walk in a grand slam of their own, basically. The Heels drew three walks in four at-bats with the bases loaded before a two-run single from Freeman one-upped the Cougars’ run count for the inning and seemed to dissolve any notion they might have had of pulling off the comeback. All told, in innings 6-8, the two teams combined to score 18 runs before a quick 9th from Rodney Hutchinson secured Carolina’s spot in the next stage of the postseason.
Austin Bergner was the winning pitcher, keeping things pretty tidy through his 5.2 innings, but the day unquestionably belonged to the Tar Heel bats, as the game broke UNC postseason records for most runs scored by UNC and for most total runs scored in a game. UNC improved their record to 34-0 when scoring 6 or more runs, and hopefully they can keep their momentum up as the competition continues. The Heels will play Stetson next in a best of three series. The date and time for the first game have not yet been announced, but we know UNC, as a top-8 seed, will be hosting the Super Regional. Hopefully they can maintain the good streak they have going at Boshamer Stadium.