“We just grinded out a win,” UNC head coach Mike Fox told reporters during his postgame press conference.
It’s not as though Canisius didn’t have its chances.
“A pitch here, an at-bat there, a play there, a call there and maybe we’re talking about a different ball game,” Canisius head coach Mike McRae said.
The Griffins, who entered the NCAA Tournament without a win over a RPI Top-100 opponent, loaded the bases in the first inning against Benton Moss and then again in the second inning. They stranded two more in the third.
Despite struggling to find the strike zone, Moss maneuvered through the first three innings and escaped with only one run scored against him. The sophomore right-hander worked 4.1 innings, giving up three runs on six hits, three walks and two hit batters. He’s allowed 12 runs on 22 hits in 15.1 innings over his last three starts.
“Benton didn’t look comfortable right out of the gate,” Fox said. “I’m not quite sure why. Just couldn’t locate really any pitch there for a while and then getting behind guys. They do look at the ball good. He just didn’t get into rhythm.”
All three Canisius runs were scored by players that were either walked or hit by pitch. One run scored on a walk; another on a wild pitch.
The Tar Heel pitching staff soldiered on, however, offering definitive proof that shaky outings can be managed with gritty determination. On four different occasions, a Canisius batter stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and struck out.
With the bases loaded and one out in the top of the eighth inning, freshman closer Trent Thornton geared down in his first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance to strike out the next two batters in what was ultimately the Griffins’ final chance to score an improbable upset.
“To me, the turning point was that eighth inning,” McRae said. “You saw a huge momentum shift. When they got those two punch-outs… In our world, in our preparation, [those] are strikeouts that shouldn’t happen in that situation.”
Canisius left 14 men on base, including 10 in scoring position.
“When the other team is leaving runners out there, you’re doing one of two things – you’re either making good pitches or making good plays,” Fox said. “Or you’re a little lucky. I guess that’s three things.”
UNC’s offense did plenty to keep the game closer than it needed to be. The Tar Heels ran themselves out of four innings – twice on questionable decisions by Fox to send runners home, once on a fly out as Landon Lassiter was doubled off at first and another on a failed stolen base attempt.
“I wrote on the back of my lineup card, ‘be aggressive tonight,’” Fox said. “And I should have written, ‘don’t be aggressive.’”
Fox told reporters he would send Lassiter again, but would have held Mike Zolk with Chaz Frank coming to the plate in the third.
All nine Tar Heel batters picked up a hit and five knocked in runs.
Fox said he didn’t think that his team was playing not to lose, instead suggesting the credit go to Canisius for being a tough opponent. His players, however, acknowledged the pressure that comes with being the No. 1 overall seed.
“I think our team was a little nervous coming in,” outfielder Brian Holberton said. “Not so much nervous, but nerves and jittery. You could kind of feel it throughout the dugout.”
As Frank pointed out moments later, UNC responded to that challenge with a victory to open the NCAA postseason.
North Carolina will face No. 3 seed Towson in the pivotal winners’ bracket game on Saturday at 6 p.m. The Tigers upset No. 2 seed Florida Atlantic, 7-2, on Friday.