CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina again waited until its final at-bat to win an NCAA Tournament game. This time, it put the No. 1 overall seed within a victory of returning to the College World Series.
Freshman Skye Bolt hit an RBI single through the right side in the ninth inning to lift the Tar Heels past South Carolina, 6-5 on Saturday in the opener of the super regional best-of-3 series.
Bolt’s two-out hit scored Parks Jordan from second for the Tar Heels (56-9), who are trying to reach Omaha for the sixth time in eight seasons. They had to regroup after a shaky start from top pitcher Kent Emanuel and rally from an early two-run deficit before winning their second in a row in walkoff fashion.
“Once the game’s over, you can take a deep breath,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “This is a fun bunch to be around and they have been since Day One. I’m happy for them.”
North Carolina beat Clemson in 14 innings and then rival North Carolina State in 18 innings during a run to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title over Memorial Day weekend.
Then came the winner-take-all game in the Chapel Hill Regional against Florida Atlantic. The Tar Heels fell behind on a ninth-inning grand slam and a 12th-inning three-run homer only to rally each time and win 12-11 on Cody Stubbs’ RBI single in the 13th.
“I’m holding up fine. My wife’s a pharmacist,” Fox said. “I’m kidding – sort of.”
Bolt had been hitting just 14 for 60 (.233) since returning from a broken right foot that cost him 17 games in April and May, but he came through with the game’s biggest hit after No. 9 hitter Jordan led off the ninth with a single.
After a sacrifice bunt by Chaz Frank and a flyout by Landon Lassiter, Gamecocks reliever Tyler Webb (3-3) intentionally walked Colin Moran – picked No. 6 by Miami in this week’s Major League Baseball draft – to get to Bolt.
South Carolina (42-19) won national championships in 2010 and 2011, then finished second last season. Now the Gamecocks – led by former Tar Heel Chad Holbrook – will have to beat the Tar Heels today and Monday to return to Omaha.
North Carolina hasn’t lost consecutive games all season.
“As good as their pitching has been all year, the thing that has stood out to me all year about their team has been their offensive approach – their willingness to never give in, the incredible job they do with two strikes,” Holbrook said. “You never really can catch your breath with those guys.”
Reliever Trent Thornton (10-1) earned the win, allowing one run in three innings. UNC’s bullpen saw heavy work when Emanuel, the ACC pitcher of the year, lasted just 2⅓ innings in his shortest start of the year.
Emanuel allowed seven hits and four runs on 63 pitches. Going back to the regionals, he has allowed 18 hits and 14 earned runs on 238 pitches in 11⅔ innings – all in an eight-day span.
His struggles helped the Gamecocks get off to a 2-0 first-inning lead and a 4-2 edge in the third before UNC rallied.
The Gamecocks got 15 hits, including three each from Graham Saiko, Chase Vergason and Kyle Martin. Joey Pankake also hit a solo home run in the second inning, but South Carolina hurt itself with three errors that led to two unearned runs.
South Carolina also stranded 12 men on base.
Brian Holberton drove in two runs for North Carolina, which finished with 11 hits and led 5-4 in the eighth before the Gamecocks tied the game on Vergason’s RBI double that scored Martin.
The opener was supposed to be Friday, but heavy rain from Tropical Storm Andrea forced it to Saturday.