Royal blowout in Queen City: Heels hammer USC

South Carolina's Taylor Widener started Wednesday's game against North Carolina, and gave up three runs despite allowing just one hit. (File, Allen Sharpe)

Crowd loyalties were equally divided in the little jewel of a downtown ballpark, with South Carolina garnet stretching down the first-base line, and North Carolina blue extending down the third. If only the numbers on the scoreboard had been as even.

A marquee non-conference matchup turned into the poorest effort this season for the fifth-ranked Gamecocks, who were helpless to slow No. 14 North Carolina in a stunning 15-0 loss before a capacity crowd of 10,205 at BB&T Ballpark in the Queen City.

“I’m sick to my stomach,” said USC head coach Chad Holbrook. “I apologize to our fans who bought tickets and showed up in earnest and were probably champing at the bit for something good to happen, and we couldn’t give them anything to cheer about. For that, I feel terrible.”

It was the worst defeat in exactly nine years for South Carolina (28-6), dating back to a 16-1 loss to Auburn on April 13, 2007. The Gamecocks churned through nine pitchers, allowed the Tar Heels (24-9) to run the bases at will, and looked nothing like the team that had swept three of four SEC series this season.

“It’s tough losing by that much, regardless if it’s middle school, high school or college,” said outfielder Alex Destino, whose hitting streak ended at 21 games. “It stinks to lose by that much. But it’s baseball. We just didn’t have it today, but that’s going to happen.”

North Carolina starting pitcher Hunter Williams limited USC to six hits in 6 1/3 innings of work. Gene Cone singled in the fourth inning to extend his hitting streak to 20 games, but not much else went right for a Gamecocks team which had a four-game winning streak snapped.

“We were outclassed tonight by the way they performed,” Holbrook said. “We didn’t pick a good night not to perform at a high level.”

Wednesday’s game, delayed a day due to weather concerns, was the first of a two-year series pitting USC against the Tar Heels in a Queen City ballpark which opened in 2014. Despite the postponement, fans of both teams still turned out in force to see a matchup of two highly-ranked teams — which quickly turned into a lopsided contest.

“You could hear the fans, you could see them leaving,” Destino said. “The morale went down a little bit. ... That’s not the baseball we play, and we know that.”

It all went awry for USC beginning in the fourth, when starter Taylor Widener walked the first two batters he faced before rebounding with a strikeout and a flyout. Widener went to a full count against North Carolina’s Brandon Riley, and lost two close pitches that had USC fans chirping before walking the outfielder to load the bases.

“A couple of borderline pitches,” Holbrook said. “Could have gone either way.”

Eli Sutherland cleared the bases with a double into the gap in left center for the only hit recorded off Widener. UNC kept it going in the fifth, when Tyler Ramirez drove in two more with a double off USC reliever Vince Fiori, and Riley drove in another run with an infield single deep in the hole at second.

“We were a pitch away from getting out of that inning, and maybe it’s a litle bit of a different game,” said Holbrook, whose team plays a three-game SEC series at Georgia beginning Friday. “They performed at a high level tonight, and we didn’t. That’s the bottom line.”

The Tar Heels blew it open with a five-run seventh inning that included a two-run double by Zack Gahagan, and Kyle Datres added a bases-clearing triple in the ninth. North Carolina banged out 11 hits, drew 10 walks, and batted .435 with runners on base.

“Obviously we’re upset with the way we played, disappointed with the way we played,” said USC second baseman D.C. Arendas. “But at the end of the day, it’s one game. You can’t allow that to snowball.”