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UNC on its 'A' game as it shuts out NC A&T in NCAA baseball opener

North Carolina’s Zack Gahagan (10) reacts after scoring on a sacrifice fly by teammate Ike Freeman in the sixth inning during the NCAA Regional on Friday, June 1, 2018 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina’s Zack Gahagan (10) reacts after scoring on a sacrifice fly by teammate Ike Freeman in the sixth inning during the NCAA Regional on Friday, June 1, 2018 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

The North Carolina baseball team knew before the start of Friday's game against North Carolina A&T that it had to be on its "A" game.

After Davidson beat UNC last season in the opening game of the NCAA baseball regional in Chapel Hill, and again in the championship game, the Tar Heels had learned from their mistakes.

And on Friday, UNC was on its "A" game.

UNC starting pitcher Cooper Criswell, especially, had it going on, and there wasn't much N.C. A&T (32-24) could do about it.

"I just got out there trying to pound the zone and like I said give my team a chance to win, and let my defense work behind me," he said.

Criswell pitched six innings of shutout baseball, and the Tar Heels (39-18) dominated the Aggies 11-0.

UNC sophomore first baseman Michael Busch provided much of the offense for the Tar Heels. He had five runs batted in, including a three-run home run well over the right center field fence.

UNCAT-SP-060118-RTW02.jpg
North Carolina’s Michael Busch (15) celebrates with Jackson Hesterlee (26) after a three run homer in the fourth inning against North Carolina A&T during the NCAA Regional on Friday, June 1, 2018 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel HIill, N.C. The Tar Heels scored five runs in the fifth to open a 7-0 lead over North Carolina A&T. rwillett@newsobserver.com

UNC is now 32-0 when it scores six or more runs.

"As a team we defended well, pitched well and hit well," Busch said. "When we put those three things together, we're pretty tough to beat."

No. 1 UNC will play the winner of No. 3 Houston (36-23) and No. 2 Purdue (37-19) on Saturday at 6 p.m. No. 4 N.C. A&T will play the loser of that game.

The last time these two teams played, the score was much closer. UNC beat N.C. A&T 1-0 on March 13 in Chapel Hill. But this game got away from the Aggies in the fourth inning.

The game started out slow for both teams. Through the first two innings, the scored was tied at zero, and the hits were at a minimum.

But the Tar Heels got on the board in the third inning and never really looked back. In the bottom of the third, Busch hit a double that knocked in two runs, giving UNC a 2-0 lead.

"Michael had a great day," UNC coach Mike Fox said of Busch. "I thought the two-run double there to finally get us on the board was big and kind of a deep breath that we scored a couple of runs, and we went from there."

In the fourth inning, the Tar Heels scored five runs. Junior designated hitter Jackson Hesterlee hit a single that scored two runs. A few batters later, Busch hit a three-run home run, and the Tar Heels went up 7-0.

UNCAT-SP-060118-RTW16.jpg
North Carolina’s Zack Gahagan (10) dives over North Carolina A&T catcher Ryne Stanley (35) to score on a sacrifice fly by teammate Ike Freeman in the sixth inning during the NCAA Regional on Friday, June 1, 2018, at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Busch finished the game 2-for-3, with a double, a home run and two walks. Junior Cody Roberts, who returned from a groin injury in May, was 1-for-4 from the plate and scored two runs.

Roberts suffered the injury after a foul ball hit him in the groin. He had to have surgery a few hours later. Friday was his first game action since that injury in early May.

"It shows you what kind of competitor and what kind of player he is to have laid off as long as he did," Fox said. "And he hasn't had many live at-bats at all. He's taking breaking pitches that are hard to take when you've been playing every day.

"We need Cody Roberts back in there. He makes us a better team."

N.C. A&T got five hits on Friday, including two in the final inning, but couldn't turn them into runs. The Aggies left five batters stranded on base.

Criswell and the rest of the bullpen were just too good.

Alexander, 919-829-4822; @jonmalexander
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