UNC's Mike Fox breaks down the Tar Heels 7-4 win over Stetson
Stetson ace Logan Gilbert, who was drafted No. 14 overall in this week's Major League Baseball draft, was one strike from getting out of the fifth inning.
But he threw a curve ball that hung high in the zone, missing its intended target, and North Carolina's Cody Roberts took advantage.
Roberts, a junior, hit a three-run home run over the left field wall, and UNC took a 4-1 lead over Stetson. From there, Stetson never got closer than one run, and UNC held on to win 7-4 at Boshamer Stadium in the first game of its Super Regional. UNC snapped Stetson's 18-game winning streak with the win.
UNC is now 34-0 when scoring six or more runs.
Roberts, who hit the deciding home run, had missed two weeks in May after taking a foul ball to the groin while playing catcher. He had to have surgery, but returned in time for the NCAA Tournament.
That turned out to be good for the Tar Heels. He made a couple of big defensive plays in the Regional Round, and his three-run home run proved to be crucial to UNC's win.
UNC (42-18) and Stetson (48-12) are playing in a best-of-three series and the winner goes to the College World Series. If the Tar Heels win on Saturday, they advance. But if Stetson wins, the two teams will play a winner-takes-all game on Sunday.
Coming into this series, Stetson boasted the best ERA (2.50) in all of college baseball. And through the first four innings, it was easy to see why. Gilbert (11-2, 2.91 ERA) was hard to hit.
But the mistake he made in the bottom of the fifth inning was costly. He pitched 5 1/3 innings, gave up four runs, six hits, and had six strikeouts.
"I felt like we laid off a lot of his good pitches, and we swung at a lot of the ones we could hit and we barreled up a bunch of balls in the first few innings," UNC first baseman Michael Busch said. "I thought our whole lineup saw him pretty well. But we prepared for this."
UNC starting pitcher Cooper Criswell (6-2, 2.75 ERA) was better on this day. He pitched five innings, giving up only four hits and one run. He struck out three.
Criswell said there is added motivation when you're going up against a highly touted prospect like Gilbert.
"Obviously I was looking forward to the matchup, and I just wanted to go our there and try to give the team a chance to win," Criswell said. "The answer in the first inning was huge. If we don't get one there, the next five innings might have been a 1-0 ball game."
Stetson got on the board first in the top of the first inning with Mike Spooner's solo home run. The Tar Heels matched that run in the bottom of the first inning.
Both pitchers began to settle down, and got through the next three innings without giving up a run. At least until Roberts' home run. Stetson added two runs in the top of the seventh to bring the score to 4-3.
UNC relief pitcher Josh Hiatt managed to get the Tar Heels out of the inning, and Stetson left one runner on base.
UNC answered again with three runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to extend its lead to four runs.
It included a two-run home run over the right field fence by Busch. Busch, who was the Chapel Hill Regional's Most Outstanding Player, finished the game 1-for-2 with the home run and two walks. He also scored three of his team's seven runs.
"After we had given up two runs, to kind of get back in the game, for us to come back and get three in the bottom of the seventh was huge," UNC coach Mike Fox said. "So we're certainly happy to get Game 1."
Stetson again had an opportunity to cause some damage in the top of the eighth inning. It had three runners on base, with the game-winning run at the plate and two outs. But Fox put in Austin Bergner to record the final out, which he did.
UNC is one game away from advancing to its first College World Series since 2013.