CHAPEL HILL All season long North Carolina has played with the memory and pain of the disappointment it endured at the end of last season, when it failed to advance out of the NCAA tournament regional it hosted. Now, the Tar Heels are one victory away from returning to a Super Regional for the first time since 2011.
After struggling through a closer-than-anticipated victory against Canisius on Friday night, UNC made it look easier at least early on during its 8-5 victory against Towson on Saturday at Boshamer Stadium. The Tar Heels built an early lead and Kent Emanuel, the junior left-hander, controlled the game before Towson rallied late.
Emaneul, who earned ACC Pitcher of the Year honors, pitched 7 2/3 innings and allowed nine hits and five runs.
After picking off both of the first two batters who recorded a hit off him, Emanuel faced the minimum of 15 hitters through the first five innings.
By then, UNC (54-8) led 4-0. The Tar Heels, the designated visiting team despite playing on their home field, scored two runs in the top of the fourth inning. Michael Russell, UNCs shortstop, drove in both of the runs with a single to left field. Russell, who finished 2-for-4, drove in another run with a double in the eighth inning.
Towson (30-29), the champions of the Colonial Athletic Association, didnt go away. Trailing 5-0, the Tigers scored one run apiece in the sixth and seventh innings. Then, after UNC added two runs in the eighth, Towson attempted to come back again against Emanuel, who by then had thrown his 100th pitch.
With one out and the bases loaded, Kurt Wertz, Towsons designated hitter, drove in two runs with a single to right. Peter Bowles followed that with a sacrifice fly to left field that sent home Pat Fitzgerald. That run cut UNCs lead to 7-5.
With two on and two out in the eighth, Trent Thornton relieved Emanuel. Thornton, a freshman who earned first-team All-ACC honors, ended the inning on a fly-out from first baseman Brendan Butler, and UNC added an insurance run in the top of the ninth.
Thornton on Friday night against Canisius struck out the final five batters. He wasnt quite as dominant on Saturday, but allowed just one hit.
UNC struggled early before pulling away late against Canisius, and the opposite true against Towson. The Tar Heels, who for the first time are the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, were cruising for a while before the Tigers made it interesting late.
Cody Stubbs, the senior first baseman, provided UNC with its first run on Saturday with a towering home run to right field off Brandon Gonnella, who pitched into the eighth inning for Towson. He allowed 11 hits and seven runs.
The Tar Heels on Sunday at 6 p.m. will play either Towson or Florida Atlantic, which defeated Canisius in the early game on Saturday.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter