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More Late Magic Lifts UNC Past West Virginia in Super Regional Opener

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More Late Magic Lifts UNC Past West Virginia in Super Regional Opener


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina has reached the doorstep of the College World Series, propelled along by another late burst of clutch postseason magic on Friday night.

The Tar Heels staged their latest last-gasp rally, storming back to overtake West Virginia 8-6 at Boshamer Stadium on Vance Honeycutt’s monster game-winning home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. Honeycutt hammered a tiebreaking, two-run bomb deep into the night, a missile that slapped an explosive ending on the opening game of this NCAA super regional series, as joy, relief and pandemonium collided in harmony here.

UNC seized its fourth victory in this NCAA Tournament, and has trailed during the ninth inning in three of those wins. The Tar Heels faced a 6-5 deficit entering the bottom of the ninth inning on Friday night, and promptly tied the game on Luke Stevenson’s leadoff home run. That 408-foot solo shot to straightaway center field helped Carolina finally chase West Virginia bulldog starter Derek Clark, the diminutive ace who delivered an indefatigable 144-pitch performance.

Honeycutt, UNC’s all-time home run king, stepped in two batters after the Mountaineers replaced Clark with reliever Aidan Major. Honeycutt said the quickie scouting report relayed by assistant coach Jesse Wierzbicki there was to look for fastballs and sliders from Major, and so Honeycutt tried to ready himself for a pitch middle-in to mash. He pounced on a 3-1 offering, crushing a 425-foot no-doubter out to left field. And Honeycutt knew it immediately, dropping his bat and thrusting his right arm skyward in one continuous triumphant motion, as he began to float away from the plate backward, which allowed him to admire the flight of the blast and also watch his fired-up teammates spill out of the home dugout behind him.

“We don’t really skip a beat,” Honeycutt said of the Tar Heels’ ability to summon more late-inning magic. “It’s weird. Sometimes you think you might get tight or you maybe should get tight. But we were talking about it, I think it was Casey (Cook) and I right before the first hitter ‘Steve’ was coming up (in the bottom of the ninth). He was like, ‘this happens every game now, so it’s honestly all right.’ And then ‘Steve,’ first pitch went over the wall. And I feel like everybody in the dugout thought that we were going to win the game.”

Carolina (46-14), the No. 4 national seed in the NCAA Tournament field, now has two chances across the next two days to secure one more victory against West Virginia (36-23) and advance to the College World Series for the first time since 2018. The Tar Heels will send No. 1 starter Jason DeCaro to the mound on Saturday night (8 p.m., ESPN2) for the second game of this best-of-3 super regional series.

UNC improved to 36-3 at home this season. Dating to the series at Duke that wrapped up the regular season, the Tar Heels now have produced four of their last seven wins during their final at-bat. UNC unlocked this trip to the super regionals by traversing an eventful path out of the NCAA Tournament’s regional round. Four nights ago, in the winner-take-all regional finale, with the season hanging in threadlike balance, Colby Wilkerson’s ninth-inning single pulled the Tar Heels even with reigning national champion LSU. And then, Alex Madera’s 10th-inning single lifted Carolina to a thrilling victory. The dizzying NCAA Tournament drama began in the regional opener, when the Tar Heels erupted for a six-run ninth inning, capped by Gavin Gallaher’s game-winning grand slam, to ride a wild rally past Long Island.

“This team, it’s just kind of been how they’ve been all year,” UNC coach Scott Forbes said Friday night, taking inventory on his team’s resourcefulness against West Virginia. “They’ve found different ways to win, and that’s the mark of a good team.”

Vance Honeycutt watches his game-winning homer sail out of the park on Friday night. (Photo: Jim Hawkins / Inside Carolina)

On this night, by the time Honeycutt rounded the bases and arrived at home plate, applying the finishing touches on his 25th homer of the season and the 62nd of his college career, a mob of Carolina teammates had formed ready to engulf him. At some point during that swarming celebration, Carter French, pulling at him excitedly, removed Honeycutt’s No. 7 jersey. Last weekend, Honeycutt launched a pair of enormous home runs, his star power shining through, as UNC defeated LSU for the first time in the regional round. That day marked the only NCAA Tournament victory that hasn’t required the Tar Heels to mount a ninth-inning comeback.

“The plan wasn’t to go up there and hit a home run,” Honeycutt said Friday night of his heroics. “That’s not probably the right approach. But this place is special. We’re having some ‘Bosh magic,’ so it was really cool.”

Meanwhile, West Virginia, making its first-ever appearance in the super regionals, suffered its first loss of this NCAA Tournament. Kyle West’s game-changing swings and Clark’s relentless pitching were poised to provide the difference for the Mountaineers. The 5-foot-9 crafty left-hander Clark, who has said he’s shorter than his listed height, had hurled his fourth complete game of the season in his previous start last weekend in the NCAA regionals. He battled across 8⅓ innings of work and struck out the Tar Heels eight times on Friday night. Clark piled up 100 strikes among his 144-pitch effort, and hopped off the mound wearing a sneering facial expression when he struck out Gallaher to end the eighth inning.

West entered this super regional series in a prolonged slump, just 1-for-32 at the plate across his last 10 games. But he bashed West Virginia ahead 6-4 in the top of the sixth inning with a two-run homer. That mammoth blast traveled 425 feet and landed in the field hockey stadium that sits beyond the ballpark’s right-field wall. West cranked two homer runs and drove in four runs, an improbable awakening from the struggling manner in which he began the super regionals, having struck out a whopping 17 times in his previous 34 plate appearance.

Colby Wilkerson’s first career home run at Boshamer Stadium, in his 323rd at-bat here, moved UNC within 6-5 in the bottom of the seventh inning. Earlier, in the West Virginia half of that inning, Forbes called on UNC reliever Matt Poston with no outs and the Mountaineers having put two runners aboard. The hard-throwing righty Poston struck out Reed Chumley on a full-count and got Grant Hussey to ground back to the mound, as he extinguished that threat. “Gigantic” was the first word Forbes used to describe that moment, as Poston got the Tar Heels out of the top of the seventh.

“Getting that big strikeout and then getting the next out,” Forbes said, “I felt like that gave us, like, ‘hey, OK, here we go.’ I could see the guys running in with the looks on their faces, like, ‘hey, that’s big.’ And it was big because their guy was good. I mean, that guy was tough, and we knew it wasn’t going to be easy to score against him.”

Poston (5-2) picked up the pitching victory while striking out the Mountaineers four times across his three all-but-perfect innings of work. He hit two batters with pitches. West Virginia’s Clark (8-3) shouldered the loss.

Carolina led 4-1 early on the strength of a four-run bottom of the third inning. The Tar Heels loaded the bases — Wilkerson and Cook sandwiched walks around Honeycutt’s single there — and Parks Harber cleared them with a two-run single. That laser off Harber’s bat was misplayed by West Virginia center fielder Skylar King in the outfield, allowing Cook to motor around and score from first base. Gallaher, the Most Outstanding Player from the NCAA regional round, followed with a two-out, run-scoring single. But UNC couldn’t hold the lead.

In the top of the sixth, Chumley’s two-run homer for the Mountaineers tied the game at 4-4. One batter later, Forbes made the move to the bullpen, bringing in Matthew Matthijs, the first of the three relievers UNC used on the night. Lefty starter Shea Sprague struck out six and gave up seven hits in his five-inning outing. West clubbed his first homer off Sprague in the top of the third inning, before rocking Matthijs later in the sixth to surge West Virginia ahead with his second long ball.



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