Diamond Heels are ACC Champs

DURHAM, N.C.--- As it turned out, North Carolina didn't need extra innings to bring home the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament title Sunday afternoon.
Having played 32 innings of baseball in a span of just 48 hours---a pair of 14 and 18-inning marathons with Clemson and N.C. State Friday and Saturday---regulation would do just fine in Sunday's finale with Virginia Tech.
Coming off a pair of double-digit scoring outings Thursday and Friday against Miami and Clemson, then a six-hour offensive stalemate for most of Saturday evening against the Wolfpack, UNC found itself in another pitcher's duel with the Hokies Sunday in the championship showdown at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
It wasn't going to be an easy chore for Carolina beating Virginia Tech, a red-hot squad that came into Sunday winners of 16 out of 18 games and on a three-game roll in the ACC Tournament, having beaten Virginia, Florida State, and Georgia Tech before getting a day of rest Saturday.
UNC, having already thrown all three of its primary weekend starters, went with big freshman Taylore Cherry, who came in with 3.1 innings of work this spring and just five appearances in a Carolina uniform.
But the 6-8, 270-pound rookie pitched like a seasoned pro, shutting down the red-hot Hokies over five innings in front of 8,697 fans---the largest attendance in the history of the ACC Tournament championship game.
For the third game out of four in the ACC Tournament the Diamond Heels pushed over a run in the first inning, as Landon Lassiter and Colin Moran each singled, and Skye Bolt knocked in Lassiter after he grounded to Hokies second baseman Alex Perez and he fumbled the ball for an error.
Carolina scored again in the bottom of the third as Chaz Frank reached base, advanced to third on a single into short right field by Moran, and scored on a fielder's choice grounder by Bolt to third base.
At the time UNC couldn't have known how huge that run would be, as it would constitute the winning run.
The story of the game was Cherry, as the rookie hurler pitched the game of his life so far.
More than doubling his career pitch count as a Tar Heel (90 pitches in total), Cherry went five full innings, allowing just five hits.
He went out for the top of the sixth and gave up a leadoff double off the big left field wall at the Durham Bulls Park by Tyler Hovan. Following Hovan's double the Diamond Heels elected to replace Cherry with Trevor Kelley, and Cherry left the mound to a well-deserved standing ovation by the UNC faithful.
Kelley found himself in a bases loaded jam after he hit Hokie designated hitter Andrew Rash but the UNC sophomore hurler coaxed catcher Chad Morgan into a double play, allowing Virginia Tech to cut the lead in half at 2-1, but minimizing the potential of a big inning.
Kelley forced center fielder Kyle Wernicki into a flyout to center with a Hokie runner on third to end the sixth inning threat, and what turned out to be the best Virginia Tech scoring chance of the game.
Kelley stayed on and pitched a perfect seventh, eighth, and ninth for the Diamond Heels, allowing no hits.
UNC added some insurance in the bottom of the eighth as Lassiter took advantage of another Hokies error---an errant throw by reliever Joe Mantiply trying to force Lassiter at third---to come around for Carolina's third run of the afternoon.
A fourth run would come across moments later as Brian Holberton blasted a fly ball to deep center field, allowing Moran to score on the sacrifice fly.
In a true exhibition of just how much outstanding pitching depth Mike Fox and his UNC coaches have put together in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels went the final 33 innings of this year's tournament over three games allowing just two earned runs.
So now it's on to the NCAA Tournament for the Diamond Heels.
They'll be hosting an NCAA Regional this coming weekend at Boshamer Stadium, and a Super Regional the following weekend in Chapel Hill if they can advance past the first Regional.
They'll learn their opposition for the Chapel Hill around noon on Monday during the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, set for broadcast on ESPNU.