CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina possesses the prodigious talent required to win a national championship. That much is obvious, as the Tar Heels stand on the cusp of going to the College World Series after beating South Carolina, 6-5, on Saturday in their NCAA tournament super regional opener.
Talent doesn’t always mean titles, and perhaps the most impressive thing about the Tar Heels is that they also have the resilience to weather adversity, which a journey to Omaha always brings. On Saturday, they turned a 4-2 deficit in the middle of the third inning into a 5-4 lead after six. When USC tied the game at five with a run in the eighth, the Tar Heels won it in the ninth.
It was just the latest in a recent string of dramatic victories for North Carolina. In the ACC tournament, the Tar Heels trailed Clemson, 7-2, entering the ninth, scored five runs and won 12-7 in 14. The next day, they went 18 with N.C. State and won, 2-1. In their winner-take-all regional final against Florida Atlantic, they slugged out a 12-11, 13-innning victory by getting two in the ninth to force extra innings and three in the 12th to again tie it.
They are at their best, it seems, when backed into a corner.
“They showed all year they can bounce back, and they did it again,” said USC senior LB Dantzler.
The Gamecocks are also schooled in resilience. Dantzler wasn’t around in 2010, but in that year’s College World Series, USC won four elimination games in five days to reach the finals, en route to its first of two straight national titles. Last season, USC again reached the finals, where it lost, by winning three elimination games in two days.
Now, they must win twice in two days at North Carolina to reach Omaha. Many of the key players from last year’s team are gone — Michael Roth, Matt Price, Christian Walker, Evan Marzilli and Adam Matthews chief among them — but the Gamecocks who returned hope to draw upon last year’s three elimination wins in Omaha.
“We’ve been in this situation,” said sophomore Grayson Greiner. “I think we’ve got the right guys in the clubhouse to bounce back from this.”
Said USC coach Chad Holbrook: “The series isn’t lost. We’ve got some guys that have played in national championship games and have got a couple rings on their fingers. They’re not going to throw in the towel. It’s a tough loss, but we’ll find a way to scratch and claw and see if we can win one (today). It was kind of our mindset coming up here: Let’s get to Game 3 and see what happens. We still have an opportunity to do that.”
USC has reasons to be encouraged about Saturday’s showing. The Gamecocks knocked North Carolina starter Kent Emanuel out of the game in 21/3 innings. He entered Saturday with a 2.70 ERA. Today, USC faces another talented left-hander: Hobbs Johnson, whose ERA is 2.09, best among the Tar Heels’ starters.
Holbrook will counter with Jordan Montgomery, a tournament-tested sophomore lefty who has a 1.67 ERA this season. He started last year’s regional-clinching win over Clemson and the second of the three elimination games in Omaha, against Arkansas. In three career tournament starts, he has allowed two runs in 212/3 innings, and has 23 strikeouts and two walks.
“He’s going to have to pitch very well against these guys,” Holbrook said. “Hopefully, we can get to the seventh or eighth inning and have a chance to win again. It’s going to be no easy task for him, but he’s an unflappable kid. He’s pitched on a big stage.”