DURHAM, N.C.--- North Carolina's game Friday night against Clemson at the ACC Tournament amounted to little more than an exhibition since that it had no bearing on Sunday's championship game.
Regardless of the outcome against the Tigers, UNC will still have to beat N.C. State Saturday night in order to meet Virginia Tech in Sunday's championship final, and Clemson cannot play on Sunday no matter what happens the rest of the weekend.
But don't tell that to the guys in the two dugouts, as the longtime ACC rivals battled it out well into the night as if it were an elimination game in Omaha.
Clemson scored twice each in the fifth, sixth, and eighth innings to take a commanding 7-2 lead into the top of the ninth inning, only to watch UNC rally for five runs behind a clutch three-run game-tying homer by Brian Holberton with two outs to send the game into extra innings on what was an increasingly chilly evening in the Bull City.
And then things got a little weird, as both teams made rallies but failed to score for four full innings before UNC finally broke through in the top of the 14th for five runs on its way to a thrilling 12-7 victory.
"I don't even know where to start. (It was) just an incredible game. We feel very, very fortunate to have won. It was a gutsy performance by both teams. I feel fortunate to have been a part of that one. It was fun and exhausting and exhilarating. All those things," said UNC head coach Mike Fox. "It's what makes this fun. You just never know what these kids have."
"There's just no such thing as meaningless games. I get it in this format. I hear that all the time, but that's hogwash. It's just not true. It is just in formality only," Fox continued.
"There's too much competitiveness between these schools and these teams, and tonight proved that."
The win puts the Diamond Heels at 2-0 in the ACC Tournament heading into Saturday's all-important showdown with NCSU.
As they did Thursday afternoon in a 10-0 'Mercy Rule' win over Miami the Diamond Heels struck early in the first inning, as a Cody Stubbs single into left field scored Chaz Frank, who led off the ballgame with a walk, to make it 1-0.
UNC starting pitcher Benton Moss cruised effortlessly through three but Clemson tied the game in the bottom of the fourth as Tigers third baseman Shane Kennedy manufactured a run by stealing second, reaching third on a wild pitch, and then scoring on a bloop single into short center by shortstop Tyler Krieger.
Then in the bottom of the fifth Clemson took the lead as the Tigers got two runners on for right fielder Steven Duggar, who nailed an opposite-field blast into deep left field beyond the full extension of a diving Frank near the warning track.
Duggar's triple gave Clemson a 3-1 lead heading into the sixth, and though Carolina would pull within 3-2 on a Brian Holberton RBI single in top half of the inning the Tigers brought on reliever Patrick Andrews in place of starter Zack Erwin.
Andrews threw six strikes on six pitches for two huge strikeouts to end the Tar Heel threat.
Andrews was again huge for Clemson in the seventh, fanning Skye Bolt and Stubbs back-to-back for two more clutch strikeouts to kill another potential UNC rally.
"I didn't think we played particularly well until basically innings nine through fourteen," said Fox.
Coach Fox stuck with Moss in the Clemson half of the sixth until with one out and runners on second and third, Tigers No. 9 batter Mike Triller ripped a line drive straight up the middle, making the score 5-2 in favor of CU.
Tate Parrish came on for Carolina and promptly hit Clemson leadoff man Maleeke Gibson with a pitch, loading the bases and prompting Fox to go with Chris McCue.
McCue again pitched well out of the pen for UNC, holding Clemson from scoring any more runs before giving way to Trevor Kelley, but Kelley allowed the Tigers to score twice more in the bottom of the eighth to seemingly put the game out of reach.
UNC loaded the bases in the top of the ninth against Clemson reliever Matt Campbell before a Stubbs single made the score 7-3.
The Tigers went to Scott Firth, and he allowed a sacrifice fly to Michael Russell (making the score 7-4), to set up the fateful two out showdown with Holberton.
Holberton worked the count to 3-0 before blasting a belt-high fastball into the right field bleachers to stun the Tigers and tie the game at 7-7.
"That was a really clutch swing of the bat by Brian," said Fox.
"The whole games they (Clemson's pitchers) had been throwing changeups away. He got behind me 3-0 and Coach was giving me the green light, telling me to swing. He (Firth) threw a fastball," said Holberton about his huge homer.
"I knew he hadn't thrown anything close for a changeup for a strike, so I just assumed fastball and he just threw it over the plate."
The Diamond Heels relied on a couple of relievers, including Reilly Hovis and Mason McCullough, to hold Clemson at bay for six straight innings (the ninth through the 14th), while Firth held the ball for the Tigers right on through UNC's five-run top of the 14th, which was ignited by a bases-clearing triple off the bat of Frank.
Frank's triple was one of several clutch hits for UNC in the decisive 14th inning, as the Diamond Heels also got RBI hits from Mike Zolk and Zach Daley.
In an anticlimactic bottom of the 14th McCullough slammed the door for a quick one-two-three inning, with the final out (a grounder from Zolk at second to Stubbs at first) unleashing a roar from the scores of Tar Heel fans who elected to stick it out.
Coach Fox made mention of the huge contributions in the late innings by youngsters such as Hovis and Daley.
"This was Reilly Hovis's coming party tonight. It was amazing (what he did). And Zach Daley," said Fox. "Reilly was sensational. He hadn't been in that fire before, and then Mason came in and did some good stuff."
"We've played 58 games, and now we might get some things for the regionals coming up or maybe Sunday if we're fortunate, that we don't know about. So there's all kinds of things once you go through this game and you say, 'Wow.'"
Friday's win was also significant for UNC in that it was its 50th of the season.
"This was our fiftieth win. I kept hearing that as guys came across, shaking our hands," said Fox. "I hadn't really given that a lot of thought, but that's kind of a neat way to get it. This team has done some amazing things all the way through the season."
"I just think we don't want to lose," added Holberton. "As long as we're out on the field, we might as well go out there and win. We didn't even really think about that (the game not affecting the ACC Tournament). It didn't matter. All we wanted to do is get the win."
The first pitch of Saturday night's Tobacco Road showdown between UNC and NCSU is set for 7:00 from Durham.
N.C. State is sending its ace, Carlos Rodon, to the mound, while the Tar Heels are countering with Hobbs Johnson.
Aside of their natural predisposition to knock off hated rival UNC, NCSU has the added motivation of trying to play its way into a National Seeding for the upcoming NCAA Tournament and the chance to host a Super Regional in Raleigh, so Carolina doesn't have to wonder whether the Wolfpack will be ready for them.
A near-sellout crowd will pack into the Durham Athletic Park, and if the game itself is anything like Friday's clash, it will surely be another fun-filled evening of college baseball in the Triangle.