CHAPEL HILL — Mike Fox was saying how hed seen Trent Thornton do this kind of thing before throw the perfect pitch in the most pressure-filled situation when Fox casually mentioned that Thornton, North Carolinas freshman closer, also recently made the deans list.
The implication behind the mention was simple enough: Is there anything Thornton cant do well?
Hes got that it factor, Fox said Friday night after the Tar Heels 6-3 victory against Canisius in the opening game of the NCAA tournament.
For seven innings UNC (53-8), which is for the first time the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, plodded through a sloppy performance that helped give Canisius hope. Benton Moss, UNCs sophomore right-hander, pitched into the fifth inning but wasnt sharp. Neither was the Heels base-running.
But the Tar Heels were at their best when they had to be, and Thornton was one of the main reasons why. UNCs third pitcher, Thornton entered the game in the eighth inning, with the Heels holding onto a 4-3 lead.
The Tar Heels were nervous throughout, some players said afterward, and the pressure increased after Canisius loaded the bases against Thornton with one out. Later on, Thornton smiled at the memory.
Its fun to have pressure, he said.
Thornton, who earned All-ACC first-team honors, struck out the next two batters looking. He needed just three pitches to strike out the second of those hitters, Canisius third baseman Connor Panas.
After retiring Panas, Thornton released some emotion during a brief but emphatic celebration. Meanwhile, the sold-out crowd at Boshamer Stadium, quiet most of the night, erupted in its loudest cheer which was in part a sigh of relief.
That was the turning point, probably from here on out, UNC leftfielder Brian Holberton said of Thorntons strikeout. The whole game up to that point, everybody was just kind of not nervous, but had some nerves.
And as soon as Trent got that out, you could feel the dugout completely change the whole game changed on that one pitch.
After extinguishing Canisius best hope to seize control, UNC increased its lead with two runs in the bottom half of the inning. Michael Russell, the Heels shortstop, provided the first of those when he came home on a sacrifice fly. Chaz Frank, UNCs leadoff man, drove home the second run with a two-out single to center.
Thornton, perhaps buoyed by his escape in the eighth, then struck out the side to end the game. Thornton before Friday night had thrived in difficult situations before. He pitched well last week in UNCs 18-inning victory against N.C. State in the ACC tournament. This, though, was something different.
There is definitely some more pressure now that its in regionals, he said.
This is the part of the season that UNC had long anticipated. When the Tar Heels began the season 39-2, they looked forward to now. While they spent most of the season ranked No. 1, they talked of greater, more important things ahead.
Canisius (42-16), the champions of Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and the No. 4 seed in the region, didnt make it easy for UNC. After falling behind 3-0 in the first and then 4-1 in the second, the Golden Griffins scored twice in the fifth to cut UNCs lead to 4-3.
All three of Canisus runs came against Moss, who struggled for the second consecutive start.
Benton didnt look comfortable right out of the gate, Fox said. And Im not quite sure why. He couldnt locate really any pitch there for a while. And (he was) getting behind guys just didnt get into rhythm.
For a while, Fox could have said the same about the rest of his team. After ending the second inning with a 4-1 lead, UNCs next three at-bats ended with outs in the base paths. During that stretch, Canisius threw out two runners at home.
With the victory, UNCs 14th consecutive in opening games of the NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels advanced to play Towson on Saturday at 6 p.m. Months before defeating Florida Atlantic on Friday in the early game at Boshamer, Towson, the regions No. 3 seed, was in danger of losing its baseball program due to budget cuts and Title IX compliance issues. The state of Maryland rescued it with emergency funding.
On a much smaller scale, Thornton came to UNCs rescue on Friday.
Until he finished off the game with five consecutive strikeouts, the Heels were sloppy on the mound, too. UNCs three pitchers combined to throw three wild pitches and hit three batters. Canisius had plenty of chances, but the Tar Heels pitchers stranded 14 Canisius base runners.
Afterward, the Heels were hopeful that what they endured on Friday night would prove to be helpful.
We could have steamrolled past Canisius, but it was good that we didnt and we could have a close game, so we could have that confidence, Frank said. Were going to need that down the road (knowledge) that we can play in a tight game, we can hand the ball to Trent, he can go right after them. And that was pretty important for us.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter