In a game eerily similar to last season's instant classic at the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, Cody Stubbs hit a bloop single into center field in the top of the 18th to score Landon Lassiter and effectively advance UNC to the title game against Virginia Tech on Sunday afternoon (1pm).
The standing room only crowd of 11,392 at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park shattered the ACC Tournament attendance record set in 2012.
Nearly a year ago to the day, N.C. State lefthander Carlos Rodon was utterly dominant on the mound against the Tar Heels, allowing no runs and four hits in 9.0 innings. The sophomore was even better this time around, allowing just one hit while striking out 14 in 10.0 innings.
"Rodon's one of the best there's ever been in this league in the 15 years I've been here," Fox said.
UNC senior centerfielder Chaz Frank highlighted Rodon's slider, a pitch that breaks late and is hard to pick up for lefty bats, as well as a cutter and a fastball that hit 96 mph on several occasions in describing the challenge the Tar Heels encountered early in the evening. Rodon hit 93 mph twice in the ninth inning.
"We knew we had to match Carlos almost pitch for pitch and just try to keep the game close and even manageable," Fox said. "And we somehow were able to do that."
Hobbs Johnson (W, 5.1 IP, 6 hits, ER) was close to Rodon's equal for five innings before Trent Thornton threw 6.2 innings of no-hit ball into the 12th inning.
N.C. State scored first in the sixth on a Grant Clyde RBI double. Rodon allowed the tying run, not on a pitch, but by taking his eye off a routine play as he was covering first base. Second baseman Logan Ratledge decided against throwing to second for a double play attempt and caught Rodon watching second as he ran to cover his bag. Mike Zolk scored from third when the ball got by Rodon.
There were multiple mistakes in the field, on the base paths and at the plate for both teams.
"I felt like nobody wanted to win the game," Frank said. "There were so many opportunities for them to win and so many opportunities for us to win the game."
UNC tallied just six hits in 61 at-bats, while N.C. State wasn't much better with 10 hits in 62 at-bats. The combined 43 strikeouts – 22 by UNC – are tied for second-most in NCAA history.
"Tonight I saw some of the best baseball I think I've seen and I saw some of the worst," Fox said. "And you all can look at the box score and figure out which is which. Just some awful, awful at-bats, but then you've got to credit some unbelievable pitching.
The Wolfpack put a man on third base with no outs in the bottom of the 18th, but were unable to score the run.
When asked about the pressure involved with the tying run 90 feet from home plate, starter-turned-reliever Chris Munnelly replied, "Honestly, it was just so late that all my nerves had gone to sleep."
Fox and his players sat down for their postgame press conference a little after 2am, less than 11 hours before the scheduled first pitch for the ACC Championship Game. Virginia Tech finished its third game of pool at roughly 5:30pm on Friday. UNC has played 32 innings in over 11 hours of action since then.
Fox didn't seem too concerned about his team's ability to bounce back for the Hokies.
"It's not them I'm worried about," Fox said. "It's the old people in our program. They're young…. They'll be ready. This is something we're excited to be a part of and to play for the title."
According to Frank, the players have already figured out the best approach.
"We're not going to sleep," he said.
Fox indicated that Taylore Cherry (3.1 IP, 5 app) would "more than likely" get the nod for UNC on Sunday.