Facing what coach Mike Fox described as a “do or die” situation on Tuesday, North Carolina broke a six-game losing streak against ACC opponents with a 5-3 victory against Virginia Tech in an ACC tournament play-in game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
A defeat might have ended the Tar Heels' season short of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001 but UNC advanced to tournament pool play -- where it play No. 1 seed Louisville on Wednesday night -- thanks to a strong starting pitching performance from Zac Gallen and some opportunistic scoring.
During a six-game losing streak in ACC games entering Tuesday, UNC had been unable to take advantage of opponents' mistakes and unable, often, to do much of anything offensively. That changed in the fourth inning on Tuesday.
Landon Lassiter, the senior left fielder, led off the inning with a routine fly ball to deep center field. Virginia Tech's Saige Jenco set his feet to make the catch, raised his glove and the ball bounced off of it, allowing Lassiter to reach third base.
He scored moments later, and the Tar Heels added two more runs – all three of them unearned – amid three consecutive singles later in the inning. Virginia Tech cut the Tar Heels' lead to 4-2 in the seventh and then 4-3 in the eighth, and the Hokies had runners on second and third with one out.
That's when Trevor Kelley, the Tar Heels' most dependable relief pitcher, struck out consecutive batters to end the inning.
Star of the game:
Gallen wasn't at his best on Tuesday but he was better than he was during a loss against Virginia Tech in early April. He pitched into the seventh inning and allowed eight hits, two runs and struck out seven. With UNC's season on the line, Gallen came through amid some pressure.
–The Tar Heels scored the bulk of their runs during the fourth inning after that Virginia Tech error in center. Without that, it might have been another story of lost opportunity for UNC, which let two ideal scoring chances slip away without any runs.
After the weather delay, the Tar Heels had the bases loaded with one out in the seventh inning and didn't score. They had runners on first and third in the first inning with one out and didn't score there, either.
--Play stopped for 40 minutes in the middle of the seventh inning while a brief but intense storm passed through Durham. The worst of it passed over Durham Bulls Athletic Park while the grounds crew attempted to place the tarp over the infield. Strong winds and rain briefly made that a difficult task.