Tar Heels ‘fighting for NCAA lives’ after ACC tournament loss against Florida State

acarter@newsobserver.comMay 21, 2014 

— Mike Fox isn’t used to these thoughts this time of year, but this hasn’t been a typical season for his North Carolina baseball team.

The Tar Heels endured a 7-1 loss against Florida State in the ACC tournament Wednesday night – a loss that damages UNC’s hope of securing a place in the NCAA tournament.

“We’re still fighting for our NCAA lives here,” Fox said.

The victory against N.C. State on Tuesday during a tournament play-in game helped solidify UNC’s postseason hopes. To Fox, though, there is still work to be done.

That is likely to be the Tar Heels’ greatest motivation going forward in this tournament, given how unlikely it now is for UNC (33-24) to reach the championship game Sunday. For that to happen, UNC would need to win its next two games in pool play – against Virginia and Maryland – and the Seminoles (42-14) would have to lose against those teams.

By the time UNC plays again on Friday night against Virginia, the Tar Heels will know whether they still have a chance of playing on Sunday. Florida State will play Maryland on Friday at 11 a.m.

Making it to Sunday might not be as important to the Tar Heels as what is beyond. Even if the Tar Heels are eliminated from tournament contention by the time they play Friday, a victory against Virginia would significantly bolster their NCAA tournament resume.

“I’m trying not to think about it,” Fox said when asked whether he thought UNC was on the right or wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble. “But we’ve got to compete better and we’ve got to try to win a couple more games here in the tournament. All that’s going to play out based on how we finish here, I think.”

Win or lose going forward, UNC is likely to experience some tension Monday when the NCAA tournament field is announced.

There wasn’t much tension or drama Wednesday night though.

“They just beat us,” Fox said of the Seminoles.

Florida State went ahead 1-0 in the second and then scored four times in the fourth inning against Taylore Cherry, the Tar Heels’ 6-foot-8 right-hander. Cherry, a sophomore, started UNC’s victory in the ACC tournament championship game last season against Virginia Tech.

He was unable to replicate that performance Wednesday, and left after allowing seven hits and six runs, all earned, in 51/3 innings. Even when he recorded outs, Cherry labored. He left after throwing 98 pitches.

Florida State starter Billy Strode, meanwhile, cruised through the Tar Heels’ batting order early on. He retired the first 11 batters he faced, didn’t allow a hit until the fourth inning and didn’t allow a run before leaving after six innings.

“(He) kept his fastball down in the zone,” Tar Heels first baseman Alex Raburn said. “He just pounded the zone and came right at us, I thought.”

UNC broke through with a run in the seventh inning, but by then the Tar Heels trailed 6-1. The Seminoles got that run back, anyway, with John Nogowski’s home run in the bottom of the inning. Nogowski’s home run came an inning after a long home run from Justin Gonzalez gave the Seminoles a 6-0 lead.

The Tar Heels, not known for their hitting this season, didn’t move a runner past first base in the final two innings and they never mounted a comeback threat.

Jameis Winston, the Florida State quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy and led the Seminoles to the national championship, closed out the game.

Winston, who didn’t allow a hit and faced four batters in the ninth, became the first Heisman Trophy winner to pitch in an ACC tournament game. UNC, meanwhile, played the final six innings without its best hitter, shortstop Michael Russell, who had only one at bat before leaving in the third inning.

Fox said it was “precautionary” to take out Russell, who was hampered by an undisclosed injury. It’s unclear whether Russell will play Friday. Even if UNC is already eliminated from the ACC tournament championship, its game against Virginia will carry significance.

“If we’re out (of the NCAA tournament), it’s going to be our own doing, Fox said.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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