DURHAM — The stage will be brighter Saturday, the seats fuller, the stakes higher when North Carolina and N.C. State meet to decide which team will play for the ACC championship on Sunday.
The Tar Heels, though, might find it difficult to surpass the drama they shared with Clemson on Friday night in the ACC Baseball Championship. After the teams played for about five and a half hours, 14 innings and combined to use 11 pitchers, UNC prevailed in a 12-7 victory.
The Tar Heels entered the top of the ninth inning trailing by five runs, and Clemson led by three when it needed one out to win the game. But then Brian Holberton, the Heels junior left-fielder, tied it with a three-run home run to right field.
The game remained scoreless until the top of the 14th inning, when UNC scored five times. Chaz Frank, in his eighth appearance at the plate, drove home three of them with a bases-loaded triple to right field off of Clemsons Scott Firth that gave the Tar Heels an 11-7 lead. Frank scored moments later on Landon Lassiters single.
In the bottom of the 14th, UNC sophomore right-hander Mason McCullough, who had appeared in only four of the Heels conference games, retired Clemson in order. And then at last it was over.
The wild finish was as memorable as it was meaningless at least to the outcome of the tournament. Clemsons loss on Wednesday against N.C. State, coupled with the Wolfpacks victory against Miami on Friday, made it impossible for the Tigers (39-19) to advance out of pool play.
Win or lose on Friday, then, the Tar Heels (50-8) were going to have a chance to advance to the tournament championship game. UNC and N.C. State will play tonight at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in a game that will send the winner to the tournament championship on Sunday against Virginia Tech.
N.C. State has won its first two games of the tournament, but with a UNC victory Saturday, both the Wolfpack and Tar Heels would finish with 2-1 records in pool play. The Tar Heels would win tiebreakers against N.C. State and Clemson, which could also finish 2-1 with a victory today against Miami.
Before the dramatic ending, Clemson had been in control on Friday night. The Tigers tied the game at 1 in the bottom of the fourth inning and took the lead with a pair of runs in fifth and sixth innings, and then added two more in the eighth. Entering the ninth, Clemson led 7-2.
Benton Moss, the Heels sophomore right-hander pitched into the sixth inning before leaving after allowing five runs on eight hits. Clemson starter Zack Erwin, a left-hander, also pitched into the sixth but held UNC to two runs on five hits.
But the Tigers bullpen imploded in the ninth when pitchers Matt Campbell and Scott Firth combined to allow four hits and five runs. Holbertons home run drove home Skye Bolt and Cody Stubbs, who drove home a run with a single in the preceding at-bat.
UNC was ranked No. 1 nationally and N.C. State sixth when the teams met in Raleigh in late April. That was perhaps the most anticipated regular-season baseball series in N.C. State history, and sold-out, standing-room-only filled the seats and concourses for the first two games at Doak Field.
But the third one, scheduled for a Sunday, was rained out. Its perhaps fitting that the third meeting between the teams comes with greater meaning. A victory against the Wolfpack would put the Tar Heels one victory away from their first ACC tournament championship since 2007.
A victory against UNC, meanwhile, would bolster N.C. States hopes of becoming a national seed. Once again, the Tar Heels and Wolfpack will face each other as top-10 teams.
UNC on Saturday will face N.C. States ace, the sophomore left-hander Carlos Rodon. He led the Wolfpack to a 7-3 victory against the Heels in late April, and also held UNC scoreless in nine innings last season during the ACC tournament. UNC eventually prevailed with a 4-0 victory in 12 innings in that game, which was played before a crowd of 10,229 the largest in state history to attend a college baseball game.
In those two games against Rodon, the Tar Heels have never scored a run while he has been pitching. Rodon allowed two runs against UNC earlier this season, but those came on a three-run home run after hed left the game.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter