In the two days between North Carolina’s loss to Pittsburgh and Friday’s game against N.C. State, Scott Forbes tried his best to avoid the topic of UNC’s NCAA Tournament outlook when speaking with his team.
The first-year head coach, however, couldn’t help but overhear a few of his players mention it. One, he said, even asked him directly if the Tar Heels needed a win over the Wolfpack to extend their season – a question to which Forbes reluctantly said yes, despite his firm belief that they’d already done more than enough.
That no longer appears to be a subject worth debating, though, after UNC jumped on N.C. State early and never looked back on its way to a 9-6 win in the final game of ACC Tournament pool play.
“I feel great right now because we had a huge win, one that I thought we needed,” Forbes said. “And State, that’s as good an offense in the country, in my opinion. They’re as hard a team to get through. … It was a great win for us, one that I feel like puts us where we need to be to be ready for the postseason.”
Having already clinched a spot in the ACC Tournament semifinals, the Wolfpack (29-16) elected to give redshirt sophomore reliever Andrew Tillery his first career start. The Tar Heels (27-25) took advantage, erupting for five runs before N.C. State recorded the game’s first out. UNC ultimately sent 11 batters to the plate in the first inning, scoring six runs on four hits – none bigger than Mac Horvath’s grand slam.
The grand slam was the Tar Heels’ first since Ashton McGee had one against Liberty on April 30, 2019. It also accounted for four of Horvath’s six RBIs on the night, the most by any UNC player in a postseason game since Mix Fox became the Tar Heels’ head coach before the 1999 season.
“I can’t say enough about Mac Horvath,” Forbes said. "To have the start he had and to be the high-profile recruit that he was, to be able to fight through it and not pack it in and really be one of our better hitters the last month is a credit to him. That was a huge swing of the bat.”
The Wolfpack didn’t go away quietly, pulling within five runs in the third and fourth, then three in the eighth. But Austin Love, Shawn Rapp, Gage Gillian and Caden O’Brien combined to strand 11 N.C. State runners, helping UNC to a resume-boosting win heading into Selection Monday.
“They’re a really good team, they’ve got a really great offense,” Danny Serretti said. “So to be able to take them down is obviously huge. We lost three games to them earlier, so it gives us a little pep in our step. But it was great seeing guys like Shawn Rapp and Caden O’Brien really shove it today. I think they’re a huge part of our team. Hopefully we can keep them rolling and the offense can keep it going, and I think we can make a run here."
Fresh off back-to-back complete games against Louisville and Georgia Tech, Love wasn’t quite as good Friday as he’d been in recent weeks. But the Tar Heels' ace was still effective, allowing four earned runs on eight hits in 5 2/3 innings. He also struck out nine batters while walking four, bringing his season strikeout total to 120, which ranks sixth in program history. Andrew Miller holds the record of 133, set in 2006.
As great as his stuff was Friday, Love occasionally struggled with his command. N.C. State also didn’t chase several good pitches outside of the strike zone. But Love still found a way to put together a solid start against a deep Wolfpack lineup, another milestone in his development.
“I’m always worried with that extra rest,” Forbes said. “I knew he threw two complete games, but that extra day, your stuff can be really good but you haven’t pitched. Perfect rest is five days; he had seven. And he pitches off six the whole year. But he’s so competitive. … He’s our horse. I’m thankful we had him.”
Coming off a pair of frustrating seasons in which he battled injuries and put too much pressure on himself, O’Brien emerged as UNC’s second-best pitcher behind Love during the first half of the season, posting a 2.70 ERA in 20 innings. The lefty’s season, however, was thrown off course when COVID-19 protocols sidelined him for six games, and he entered Friday with a 7.90 ERA in his last 13 2/3 innings.
After Tyler McDonough cut what was once an eight-run Tar Heel lead to three with his RBI double in the eighth inning, Forbes called on O’Brien with one out and runners on second and third. The redshirt junior proceeded to strike out N.C. State’s Nos. 3 and 4 hitters, Jonny Butler and Terrell Tatum, looking to end the inning. He then allowed just one runner to reach base in the bottom of the ninth on his way to his third save of the season.
“After that hit (by McDonough), I just thought to myself, ‘Jonny Butler is too good, especially against right-handed pitching. …” Forbes said. “I just made that decision like, ‘I’m going to go with the older, veteran guy that has done it.’ Credit to Caden. That’s Caden, though. He can be that good.”
UNC desperately hopes he continues to be, especially given the team’s lack of pitching depth.
“I do think with Caden O’Brien throwing like he did tonight, that gives us some flexibility with what we can do in that other starter role,” Forbes said. “And that includes Caden or possibly a guy like Gage Gillian, if Caden is throwing well, to get us off to a good start.”
Serretti got the scoring started for the Tar Heels with an RBI single to right field, but the shortstop didn’t stop there. He went on to single three more times to finish with four hits for the game, his most since he had five at Georgia Tech on April 6, 2019.
Serretti’s season has been filled with ups and downs at the plate, but he appears to be getting hot again at the right time. Friday’s performance extended his hitting streak to seven games, during which he’s slashing .433/.455/.700. His .250 batting average is the highest it’s been since after the first game of the season.
“I feel like I’ve been missing out most of the year, so I’m happy to be able to contribute a little bit,” he said. “Everybody has their own part, their own job to do. And I’m happy to finally be contributing a little bit here. If everyone does that, I think good things can happen for us.”
The Tar Heels now await their NCAA Tournament fate, which will be revealed at 12 p.m. Monday on ESPN2. D1Baseball lists UNC in its “next five in” after Friday’s win. Regional play begins next Friday.