It could have been the final time this year that North Carolina’s players and coaches boarded a bus and rode to a ballpark and maybe it would have been had Trevor Kelley not seen what he saw Tuesday on the way to Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
“On the ride over here before the game I could really sense that everyone was focused and was just going to really compete with everything they had today,” Kelley, the senior right-handed relief pitcher, said after the Tar Heels’ 5-3 victory against Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament. “And for me personally, I’m a senior so time is ticking. I’m not going to go out easy, that’s for sure.”
Kelley and his teammates never expected to be here on Tuesday, facing what they faced in a win-or-go-home play-in game. Yet after ending the regular season with a six-game losing streak in conference games that was the Tar Heels’ reality in a game that coach Mike Fox had described as “do or die.”
With a loss UNC’s season might have ended – and likely would have ended, if you believe what Fox had to say about it – short of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001. Even with a victory, Fox said, “I’m still not sure we’re in.”
Yet the Tar Heels are sure of this, at least: They’re alive. And they’re alive thanks in no small part to Kelley and to Zac Gallen, both of whom pitched in and out of jams on Tuesday but made the right pitches at the right times to escape them.
Kelley, in particular, encountered tense times in the eighth inning, after a 40-minute weather delay. Virginia Tech had cut UNC’s lead to 4-3 and the Hokies had two runners on second and third with one out.
Kelley then ended the inning with consecutive strikouts and began the ninth with two more. That was the kind of clutch, gritty performance that UNC had lacked in recent weeks when one conference loss turned into two, and then two turned into six in a row – its longest conference losing streak since 2001.
After a particularly disappointing defeat against Virginia in the regular-season finale on Saturday, Fox addressed his players individually and collectively. He had called that defeat “embarrassing,” and he said he spoke with his team for a long time about the appropriate response.
“I just challenged my team,” he said. “They’re at the University of North Carolina. They’re playing in a great league, and that’s what they signed up for. And I talked to all of them recruiting them – they knew what they were getting into. And you can’t forget that.
“And to go out and not so much not play well but not play with effort is unacceptable.”
UNC during that six-game streak didn’t take advantage of opportunities it received and it didn’t create many of its own, either. Finally there was a breakthrough on Tuesday, when the Tar Heels scored three unearned runs to take a 3-1 lead in the fourth inning.
Meanwhile, Gallen, the team’s No. 1 starter who was throwing on four days rest, shook off a challenging start – he allowed one run in the second inning – and pitched into the seventh. He left before the rains came, and left with a 4-1 lead.
Gallen said he took pleasure in the opportunity to play amid this kind of pressure, when “everything is on the line,” he said. He received run support – not a lot of it, but enough – and then after the storm Kelley, who recorded five of his seven outs on strikeouts, did the rest.
“Showing up, you could tell there was a different look in everyone’s eyes,” Gallen said. “They knew what was at stake today.”
And so the Tar Heels boarded the bus when it ended knowing they had a few more trips, at least, left in them.
When: Daily through Sunday
Where: Durham Athletic Park
Virginia 11, Georgia Tech 0
UNC 5, Va. Tech 3
Pool A: FSU vs. Clemson, 11 a.m.
Pool B: Miami vs. Virginia, 3 p.m.
Pool A: Louisville vs. UNC, 7 p.m.
Pool B: N.C. State vs. Notre Dame, 11 a.m.
Pool A: Clemson vs. Louisville, 3 p.m.
Pool A: UNC vs. FSU, 7 p.m.