Another loss to Davidson provides stunning end to Tar Heels season

While the fourth-seeded Wildcats advance to the first Super Regional in school history, the Tar Heels are left to wonder how a season that included a school-record 23 ACC victories and No. 2 national ranking could fall apart in such dramatic fashion

Jeffrey A. Camarati—UNC Athletic Communications photo
UNC first base coach Scott Forbes reacts angrily as first base umpire Greg Harmon signals the final out of Sunday's NCAA tournament loss to Davidson

CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina’s baseball season came to a sudden and shocking end Sunday night with a 2-1 NCAA tournament loss to Davidson that will be remembered for its wild ninth inning and a controversial play at the plate. When taken in the context of the entire weekend, however, the Tar Heels’ elimination from their own host regional was neither sudden nor a surprise. Rather, it was a gradual process that started the same way it finished — with a defeat at the hands of the fourth-seeded Wildcats. A suddenly hot team that just seemed to have UNC’s number, Davidson also beat the Tar Heels 8-4 in the tournament opener Friday. The Atlantic 10 Conference champions will now advance to the first Super Regional in school history while coach Mike Fox and his Tar Heels are left to wonder how a season that included a school-record 23 ACC victories and No. 2 national ranking could fall apart in such dramatic fashion. “At the end of the season it’s miserable,” Fox said moments after the final out was recorded. “The last day of the season is the worst part of coaching, especially when you’ve got such a good group.” Fox’s team seemed to have recovered from an ominous start to the regional, in which ace J.B. Bukauskas was tagged for six runs in 3⅔ innings by the Wildcats, by bouncing back to beat third-seeded Michigan 8-1 on Saturday behind a strong pitching performance by freshman Gianluca Dalatri. They got another lift from fellow freshman Tyler Baum on the mound in Sunday’s early game against No. 2 Florida Gulf Coast on the way to a 10-1 victory that helped them regain their confidence heading into their rematch against Davidson. But UNC’s momentum began to sputter after a 90-minute rain delay and a short-circuited first inning rally that ended with a line drive double play off the bat of Kyle Datres. Davidson eventually took the lead with two runs in the fifth off starter Taylor Sugg and reliever Josh Hiatt, The Tar Heels answered back in the bottom of the inning with a homer from freshman Michael Busch, but could manage little else against the Wildcats’ Josh Hudson — a pitcher who came into the game with more walks than strikeouts and an earned run average of 5.27. And yet, despite its problems at the plate, UNC was still in a position to pull the game out and extend its season after Brandon Riley and Tyler Lynn put together back-to-back singles against Davidson reliever Durin O’Linger in the ninth. The Tar Heels (49-14) had already staged one successful ninth-inning rally against the Wildcats this season, coming from behind to win in the 10th. They nearly did it again when Zack Gahagan lined a first-pitch single to right. Riley beat the throw home, but in his effort to avoid catcher Jake Sidwell, he missed home plate. He was tagged by the Davidson catcher as he reached back to touch it. Umpire Chris Marshall ruled him out. Riley and his teammates disagreed. Loudly. “The college rule is if the catcher doesn’t have the ball and you’re coming up the line you’re supposed to avoid contact and it looked to me like that’s what Brandon did, and it took him around the plate,” Fox said. “I don’t know if he got it on the way through or not but he certainly got there before the ball did. I guess in the eyes of the umpire he didn’t touch it so he tried to reach back and get it.” UNC senior Adam Pate said after the game that he thought Riley was safe at the plate, but then added that it his opinion isn’t the one that matters. “Yeah, but what are you supposed to do?” Pate said. “You hope he’s safe. You feel like he’s safe, but there’s a lot of other things Davidson did well. It wasn’t just that one play, but yeah it was just tough. It was a tough play.” The game and the Tar Heels’ season ended on another tough play moments later. With the potential tying run still only 90 feet away at third, Busch nearly beat out a high bouncer to the right side. But O’Linger, who got a late start off the mound before taking the throw from first baseman Brian Fortier, beat him to the bag by a half step for the final out. “We were all confident and we all expected it, but it’s just the story of our season — guys fighting till the end,” junior center fielder Brian Miller said. “The call at the plate, I saw it once. It is what it is. Brandon gave it all he had. Zack had a good swing. That’s all you can ask for, just guys giving it all they got until the final out.” They just didn’t expect that the final out would come this early in the tournament. “I can’t put it