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May 31, 2013CHAPEL HILL--- North Carolina, the top seed in this year's NCAA Tournament, found itself in quite a struggle Friday night in its Chapel Hill Regional opener with Canisius.
The Golden Griffins, throwing ace pitcher Garrett Cortright and showing off some of the offensive firepower that made them one of the better hitting teams in the country this season, hung with the powerful Diamond Heels and gave them a tough game that most of the UNC faithful on hand at Boshamer Stadium couldn't have expected coming in.
In the end the Diamond Heels prevailed, 6-3, setting up a Saturday evening matchup with Towson in the Winner's Bracket, but it sure didn't come easy against the Golden Griffins.
"It was a really tough, hard-fought win for us. I'm very, very impressed with Canisius. They gave us all we could handle. We just grinded out a win. I was really impressed with their team," said UNC head coach Mike Fox shortly after the game.
"We've won in different ways here lately, which I think is important."
The 42-15 champions of the MAAC (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference), Canisius loaded the bases in both the first and second innings against UNC senior starter Benton Moss, only for Moss pitch his way out of the jams with only one run allowed.
When UNC scored three runs in the top of the first and then another one in the bottom of the fourth to make it 4-1, it looked like the Diamond Heels were on their way to another NCAA Regional rout, which has become customary in recent years not counting last year, when the Diamond Heels were swept out of the postseason by St. John's.
"You don't ever really know what's going to happen. You just don't. It's a little a false sense (of security) when you get them out of the first inning with the bases loaded, and you come in and score three, the team is going, 'Okay, we gave them a little bit of hope and we scored three runs,' like that's how the rest of the game is going to go."
"From that standpoint, maybe it's a lesson that sometimes that's not how it goes," Fox said.
But then the Carolina bats cooled off, as they went the next five innings without a run as Canisius ace Cortright settled in and pitched like the guy who finished among the top ten college pitchers in the nation this spring with 11 wins.
"Cortright, I was really impressed with him, because we really made him work the first two or three innings. I thought, 'Well, we'll have him out of the game maybe earlier,' and he just stayed with it and sailed through a couple innings and gave them a good outing," said Fox.
"I think our team was a little nervous coming in, just nerves, jittery in the dugout (early in the game). And once we got a few runs and settled down a little bit later in the game, I think we'll be fine from here on out," said veteran outfielder Brian Holberton, who had two hits and two RBIs.
Of course the Diamond Heels didn't help themselves at times, as they spent the night being overly aggressive on the base paths and taking some over-active swings at the plate, pressing to make something happen.
During one stretch midway through the game, a UNC runner was thrown out along the bases to end four out of five innings, including twice at home plate.
"It was a little frustration (getting thrown out on the bases), said leadoff hitter Chaz Frank, who had three hits, a run scored, and an RBI. "We had runners on base, but at least we were getting runners on base, and we were making aggressive plays trying to score runs. And they just made really good plays to the plate and caught the ball."
"That was me waving them around third," added Coach Fox. "I wrote on the back of the lineup card to be aggressive tonight. I should have written don't be aggressive."
Canisius's offense broke through against Moss in the top of the fifth, knocking him out of the game by getting two more runners on. The Griffins then took advantage of an RBI single by second baseman Jose Torralba and a couple of UNC wild pitches, one of which scored another run, to make the score 4-3.
Chris McCue came on in relief for Moss and gave up the two runs, which were both charged to Moss, but he settled down after that, holding Canisius off the scoreboard in the sixth and seventh innings.
"Chris McCue was good for us after he got in and settled in a little bit. The wild pitch (that scored a run), he just jerked a change-up to the other side of the plate and I don't think Matt (Roberts) was ready for it."
"If he doesn't do that we don't give up a run that inning, so I thought Chris was really important for us to keep it right there at 4-3."
Trent Thornton came on for the Tar Heels in the eighth and once again Canisius put together a threat, loading the bases after Thornton gave up a pair of singles and a stolen base, and then hit Jimmy Luppens with a pitch.
The Golden Griffins had their No. 4 and No. 5 hitters coming up but Thornton took them both down, getting a pair of huge strikeouts to bring the UNC crowd to its feet while collectively breathing a big sigh of relief.
"It was just good to kind of slow the game down, once the bases were loaded to get those two strikeouts to get out of the inning and get the offense going," said Thornton.
"I was just kind of speeding the game up, and that's not what you want that late in the game. So you just take a deep breath off the mound and collect yourself. It was a big pitch just to get us back in the dugout so we could swing the bats. It was just good to get back off the field still having the lead."
"I've seen him (Thornton) do it before," added Coach Fox. "That's a special kid we have here. He made the Dean's List, if you want to throw that in there along with closing games for us in a Regional as a freshman. He's got that 'It' factor."
"He's aggressive and he throws strikes," Fox continued on Thornton. "He's got two pitches that he can strike you out with, which is obviously important. I don't remember the last time we had a freshman closer, but I think his teammates trust him, which is important."
Carolina got a couple huge insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, as Michael Russell reached base and ultimately scored on a deep fly to center field by Mike Zolk.
Then Frank came up and brought home another run with a clean liner to center field, making the count 6-3.
After nearly three hours of drama, UNC made it simple in the top of the ninth, as Thornton stayed on and got an easy three outs to end the game.
"When the other team is leaving runners out there, you're either making good pitches, making good plays, or you're a little lucky," said Coach Fox.
North Carolina (53-8) gets the luxury of another night game Saturday against Towson on what promises to be a sweltering late spring day in Chapel Hill, with daytime and early evening temperatures likely hovering in the upper 80s.
The winner of that game holds a tremendous advantage in this regional, needing just one more win to advance to next weekend's Super Regional.
The loser of Saturday's UNC-Towson matchup, on the other hand, will have to play the survivor of Saturday afternoon's Loser's Bracket elimination game between Florida Atlantic and Canisius on Sunday morning, and then have to come back that evening and play the same team that beat them the day before.
UNC is looking for its sixth trip to the College World Series in Omaha in the last eight years this spring.