CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina used dominant pitching and timely, clutch hitting to establish itself as one of the best teams in the nation during the final month of the regular season. Both of those things, though, eluded the Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament.
North Carolina’s season came to a disappointing end Sunday in a 9-5 loss against St. John’s, which also defeated the Tar Heels on Saturday. That loss sent the Heels, the tournament’s No. 6 national seed, into the losers’ bracket, and it meant that North Carolina had to win twice on Sunday to keeps its season alive.
The Tar Heels (46-16), the top seed in the Chapel Hill regional, began the day with a 5-3 victory against East Carolina – a victory that set up the rematch against St. John’s. The Red Storm (40-21), which entered the regional’s No. 3 seed, stunned North Carolina on Saturday when Danny Bethea hit a game-winning three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth.
There was no need for such dramatics on Sunday. St. John’s erased an early 3-1 deficit and took the lead for good with three runs in the top of the third inning. Two of those runs came home when Sean O’Hare’s ground ball to second took a high, strange hop and bounced into the outfield for a single.
“The ball bounced our way, there’s no doubt about it,” St. John’s coach Ed Blankmeyer said. “That’s baseball.”
Mike Fox, the Tar Heels’ coach, used the same phrase to describe his team’s shortcomings on Sunday. The Tar Heels entered the tournament with the third-lowest ERA in the nation, but the nine runs they allowed on Sunday were the most they’d given up since a 16-10 victory against Xavier on Feb. 18.
Still, the Tar Heels had plenty of chances, and what seemed like an equal amount of mistakes. They scored a pair of runs in the sixth and seventh innings, but the Red Storm cushioned its lead with two runs in the ninth.
Those runs came thanks to a multitude of Tar Heels’ miscues. St. John’s loaded the bases in the ninth thanks in part to an error and a hit batsman. After one runner scored, UNC appeared to escape further damage when Michael Morin, the team’s closer, got Kyle Richardson to hit a high pop fly between home plate and the pitcher’s mound.
Morin called off his teammates and settled under the pop-up. But the ball bounced off his glove, and another run came home. That was one of three North Carolina errors, and it was most likely the most difficult one to bear given that Morin allowed St. John’s game-winning home run on Saturday night.
“This game can be pretty cruel to you at times,” Fox said, “and that’s why I think we learn so much from playing it.”
While the Red Storm took advantage of North Carolina’s mistakes and produced with timely hitting, the Tar Heels did the opposite. They generated just one run in the seventh inning, despite loading the bases with one out. Their only run that inning came when James Lomango walked Jacob Stallings, which allowed Parks Jordan to come home.
Lomango, who entered the game in relief of Red Storm starter Matt Carasiti, escaped trouble by retiring Cody Stubbs and Shell McCain.
St. John’s, led by Frank Schwindel’s 5-for-5 performance, advanced out of regional play for the first time since 1980. North Carolina, meanwhile, failed to advance to the Super Regional for the second time in three years. Before Sunday, the Tar Heels last failed to advance out of a regional it hosted in 1983.
As disappointed as he was in the moment, Fox spoke with pride about this team’s season, and he said he was “amazed” that UNC won 46 games. They won most of those, though, with enviable pitching, and Shane Taylor, the Heels’ starter on Sunday, lasted just two innings after he allowed seven hits and four runs.
“It hit me while I was out there,” UNC catcher Jacob Stallings said of the emotion. “I mean, obviously we didn’t get where we wanted to go, but we had a great year.”