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June 19, 2013

Thornton pitches UNC past Tigers

Omaha, Neb. - North Carolina did some things differently in its first elimination game of the College World Series.

A change in the batting lineup - moving Brian Holberton to the four spot, Skye Bolt to the six spot and Michael Russell to the seven spot - meant batting right handers back-to-back and having Holberton as the cleanup man for only the second time in the postseason.

Starting right hander Trent Thornton meant throwing a pitcher who has done nothing but give consistent reliever and closer performances since March 27.

And getting ahead in the top of the first inning meant playing a full game to victory with out deficit for the first time in seven games, since June 1.

But the changes worked for the Tar Heels and they beat LSU 4-2, keeping their season alive and not changing their record of being the only team in the nation to not suffer back-to-back loses all season.

"It goes to show the whole team doesn't want to give up," Holberton said. "We've done it all year, with our backs against the wall, just come out fighting. And I think we play better that way."

"We're a team that just doesn't want to lose."

North Carolina wasted no time in making its will to win apparent. Colin Moran showed fight by singling on two outs in the first inning before Holberton came to bat.

It took six pitches for Holberton to find the one he expected, but he got what he anticipated being thrown, and sent it over the right centerfield wall for a RBI home run.

"I was watching Chaz (Frank's) at bat and he was swinging over some pitches and came back in (the dugout) and said that the ball was running back in on him," Holberton said. "So when I got up there, I was thinking 'If he throws one, you've got to try to pull it because he's going to run in on your hands,' and that's exactly what he did."

"I swung over..I think it was the second strike…and after that I told myself 'He's going to try and throw a two-seemer in so just don't get beat in,' and he threw it in and I put a good swing on it," he said.

LSU southpaw starter Cody Glenn then allowed a third Tar Heel to reach base by hitting Cody Stubbs, but Bolt sent a fielder's choice to Tiger short stop Alex Bregman and Stubbs was tagged out at second ending the inning.

But the two-run advantage gave UNC a refreshing game perspective and a confidence boosting one for Thornton as he made the most crucial start of his young career.

"It's always good to get a lead early in the game," Thornton said. "When you get a lead early, (you) need to focus and (…) just don't give up any runs and you'll win the game."

Thornton moved to 12-1 on the season and made this year's team the first in North Carolina baseball program history to reach 58 wins.

LSU's batters only made contact on Thornton pitches in collectively fouling off four balls through the first two innings, although Bregman and Mason Katz both walked in the first inning, before North Carolina's offense extended its lead to 3-0.

Landon Lassiter doubled to open the third inning before Moran singled to score him.

Thornton struggled through the bottom of the third inning, allowing three hits and walking one before working himself out of the jam in a fashion that reflected his closer status, then threw a 1-2-3 inning in the bottom of the fourth.

The freshman left the mound showing emotion, screaming into his glove expressing both frustration and excitement.

"(It's) a little bit a mixture of both.," he said. "(I) just tell myself to make good pitches and take it one inning at a time, that's pretty much it."

After Thornton got North Carolina to the fifth by taking it inning by inning to anchor a defense that allowed no runs, the Tigers began a hitting rally that lead to their first run.

Sean McMullen and Mark Laird hit consecutive singles before Katz knocked an RBI single to left field.

Both teams scored single runs in the seventh inning as Moran singled to start the inning, before Holberton moved him to second on a sacrifice bunt and Bolt scored him with a single to left field.

"I really just reverted back to what got me here," Bolt said, who was 2-4 against LSU in contrast to going 2-16 in his last four games in the four spot.

"That was staying tall and taking what the pitcher was giving me, instead of trying to drive some extra base hits there in the four hole."

Louisiana State kept the Tigers deficit to two runs as McMullen and Laird doubled, then singled, before McMullen was scored off a Bregman single into a double play.

But that was all either team could muster as LSU closer Chris Cotton retired North Carolina batters in order in the eighth and ninth innings and UNC closer Chris McCue contained the Tigers' offense despite allowing a hit, hitting a batter and walking two collectively in the final two innings as he secured the save.

We got two pitchers up here (McCue and Thornton) that got us a win in Omaha from the same high school," Fox said of the North Carolina pitching pair. "So (I) need to give a shoutout out there to Hal Bagwell from Ardrey Kell High School. Coached them good."

For Thornton, who's barely a year out of Bagwell's guidance, the win felt particularly nice because he was able to support the offense provided by his team.

"It's just a confidence booster," Thornton said of being able to follow a power-hit first inning with a secure win. "Because you've got your team's back."

UNC now gets a rematch with N.C. State, who lost in Tuesday's nights Winners Bracket matchup with UCLA, in a Thursday evening elimination showdown.


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