For the third year in a row, UNC and N.C. State showcased their intense rivalry in the ACC Tournament. And for the third year in a row, the Tar Heels emerged victorious against their West Raleigh neighbors.
After needing 12 innings to secure a 4-0 win in the 2012 ACC Tournament and 18 more to squeeze out a 2-1 victory in last year's event in Durham, UNC kept it to the minimum this time around.
In a grinding duel highlighted by clutch plays and poor officiating, UNC overcame a 1-0 early deficit with a three-run third inning to take a 4-1 lead, which would turn out to be just enough to advance to pool play on Wednesday.
"We knew this was really a very important game for us," UNC head coach Mike Fox told reporters following the game. "We just didn't want to take any chances with maybe what could happen going further here. We just wanted to stay alive and stay in this tournament as long as we can and keep playing."
Skye Bolt tied the game with a home run to right field in the bottom of the second and then pushed UNC's lead to 4-1 with a sac fly following RBI hits by Michael Russell and Wood Myers.
Reilly Hovis (3 ER, 5 hits, 3.1 IP) earned his first start of the season, but it was UNC's relief pitchers that stymied the Pack bats with runners in scoring position. Zach Rice (hit, 0.2 IP) struck out a pair of batters to escape a bases loaded jam in the fourth.
N.C. State had runners on second and third with no outs in both the fifth and eighth innings, yet Trevor Kelley (no hits in 1.2 IP) worked out of the former while Trent Thornton (no hits in 2.0 IP) closed the latter.
"All three of them came in and did exactly what we needed them to do," Fox said. "Those are some young guys. That's what the regular season does – it gives those guys experience. I'm proud of them coming in and pounding the strike zone and getting a couple of big strikeouts."
N.C. State head coach Elliott Avent credited UNC's pitching staff with limiting his team's scoring opportunities, despite quality looks at the plate.
"I thought we had great at-bats all day," Avent said.
The headlines, however, weren't reserved solely for the players and coaches. Home plate umpire Mark Chapman made sure his presence was felt with botched calls in back-to-back innings.
Wood Myers watched as a full-count pitch at shoulder height was called strike three with the bases loaded in the bottom of the fourth.
In the top of the fifth, Chapman made a theatrical strikeout call facing away from home plate while N.C. State shortstop attempted to steal home from third base. Chapman was late in getting turned around, but ultimately called Turner out despite replay showing him safe.
Such calls carry greater importance in rivalry games with postseason berths swaying in the balance. As dramatic as the 2012 and 2013 ACC Tournament games between these two programs may have been, the players and coaches knew their seasons would continue into June.
With Tuesday's loss, the Wolfpack has likely completed its 2014 campaign. N.C. State owns a 32-23 (13-17 ACC) record and a No. 55 RPI ranking that includes a 2-11 mark against RPI Top-50 opponents.
For the Tar Heels, their sixth-consecutive ACC Tournament win improves their record to 33-23 (15-15 ACC) and boosts their RPI to No. 39. UNC is 7-10 against the RPI Top-50 and 14-18 against the RPI Top-100.
While UNC's resume may not be a lock for NCAA Tournament play, Tuesday's win guarantees three more opportunities against Top-50 opponents in No. 1 Virginia, No. 3 Florida State and No. 28 Maryland this week.
UNC begins Pool B play against No. 2 seed Florida State on Wednesday at 7pm.