The Tar Heels outlasted the Tigers, 12-7, in an extra-inning contest packed with competitive baseball. While the display was impressive, a loss wouldn't have affected UNC's chances for a Sunday berth. The pool play format of the ACC allots for the team with the best regular season winning percentage to advance in the case of a tiebreaker between three or more teams.
“Right now we’re all exhausted so we’ve got to fill our tanks for tomorrow,” UNC head coach Mike Fox admitted following Friday's 5-hour, 16-minute contest.
The Tar Heels will need all that they have in the tank for their next test in the tournament. North Carolina entered the ACC Tournament as the top overall seed for the first time since 1990 with the possibility of claiming their sixth ACC Tournament title. Enter Saturday’s primetime collision with N.C. State.
“It should be fun," Fox said. "A big crowd is expected and it should be exciting. I know our players are looking forward to it.”
The two teams split the series earlier in ACC play with the finale being canceled due to inclement weather. Junior starting pitcher Hobbs Johnson showed his eagerness towards the drawing.
"I'm definitely excited,” Johnson said. “I told one of my former coaches after the game was rained out over there [in Raleigh during the regular season] that I hope that it worked out that I would have a chance to pitch again against them."
The first two contests revolved around the dominance on the mound by their respective aces. Kent Emanuel delivered a solid outing for the Tar Heels with a 7-1 victory in the first game. The following night, Carlos Rodon led the Wolfpack to a 7-3 win over the then No. 1-ranked Tar Heels to help solidify their position as a top-tier team in college baseball this season.
The third installment couldn’t have been scripted out in more ideal fashion. With a chance to compete for a championship hanging in the balance, both teams will be doing all they can to oust their rival and move on.
N.C. State will put their hopes on the arm of Rodon once again as he heads back to the mound, while the Tar Heels will counter with Johnson. The Rocky Mount, N.C. native pitched 1 1/3 innings against the Wolfpack last season in the tournament, allowing two hits, two walks and no earned runs.
Johnson was candid in discussing his matchup with N.C. State’s talented left-hander in such a high stakes affair.
"He is a great pitcher, but I would say he has a really hard lineup to go against too," Johnson said. "I cannot wait to go head to head against him. My key going into every game is locating my fastball. I throw 90 percent fastballs and just locating it in and out on the plate will be my big key."
One of those responsible for forming such a "hard lineup" is All-American third baseman and ACC Player of the Year Colin Moran. The battles at the plate between Rodon and Moran haven’t been a rarity, yet they still will produce major intrigue during Saturday's game.
“The more familiar you are with a pitcher, I guess, you can say the easier it gets, but with him I don’t think it gets much easier,” Moran said.
All animosity aside, the opportunity to contend for an ACC Championship is enough to add a huge emphasis to the game and draw intrigue amongst baseball fans. This rivalry clash, combined with the magnitude of the moment, may draw historic attendance numbers for the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
UNC's 4-0 win over N.C. State last year set the ACC Tournament attendance record at 10,229 by more than 3,000.
“It was definitely the biggest game I’ve been apart of,” Moran said of last year's ACC Tournament meeting. “It was nice to get a W and hopefully we can get one tomorrow.”
The DBAP's official capacity is 10,000, yet the most fans ever packed into the stadium came on July 4, 2010 during a Bulls game in which 11,674 patrons attended.
Seats are sold out for Saturday's 7pm game with just standing room only tickets still available as of late Friday. With all that’s at stake for both teams, it sets up to be quite a momentous affair for all spectators in attendance and for the ACC as a whole.