A power-hitting freshman led his team to the ACC Tournament championship by hitting a pair of long home runs Sunday.
But it wasn’t NC State’s Tommy White, who set an NCAA rookie record with his 27th round-tripper of the season earlier in the week.
UNC’s Vance Honeycutt stepped out from the shadow cast by the Wolfpack’s more heralded “Tommy Tanks” by hitting balls out of Charlotte’s Truist Field in each of the first two innings to propel the Tar Heels to a 9-5 victory.
Combined with the strong starting pitching of Max Carlson, Honeycutt’s heroics helped UNC win its eighth conference championship while denying rival State a drought-ending title for the second straight final.
The Wolfpack, which haven’t won an ACC crown since 1992, lost to Duke in last year’s final.
“It was awesome,” said Honeycutt, who became the first 20-20 player in program history by increasing his home run total to 21 to go along with his team-leading 28 stolen bases. “It was really cool, but at the end of the day we wanted to win and we got that.
“Someone was going to step up. I didn’t know who it was going to be, but this team always works and we just kind of got in that groove. We were able to step up and get some runs across and the guys were able to hold it down.”
State (36-21) got off to a promising start when Devonte Brown led off the game with a double into the right field corner and then came around to score on Josh Hood’s one-out single.
The run, which didn’t go on the board until the call was upheld following a UNC challenge that Brown missed third base, surpassed the Wolfpack’s run total from last year’s final when they were shut out 1-0 by the Blue Devils.
The early momentum was quickly dashed, however, when Tar Heels shortstop Danny Serretti made a nice play to turn Noah Soles’ bouncer up the middle into a rally-killing double play.
UNC (38-19) then grabbed the momentum and the lead in the bottom of the first by parlaying a leadoff single by Angel Zarate and the first of Honeycutt’s two homers into a 2-1 lead off Wolfpack starter Logan Whitaker.
“I feel like if you’re seeing it well, you’re able to spin on pretty good pitcher’s pitches,” Honeycutt said of his tournament MVP performance. “You’re able to get your pitch and not kind of chase. If you’re able to do that, then you can find a barrel and good things happen.”
Good things happened for virtually everyone in the UNC lineup in the bottom of the second.
The game-breaking rally started when Tomas Frick reached on an error by State third baseman Payton Green. Hunter Stokley followed with a single before ninth hitter Colby Wilkerson was hit by a pitch to load the bases.
Zarate got two runs home when his hard shot to second took a bad hop on the Wolfpack’s J.T. Jarrett. Then after Mac Horvath popped to short for the first out of the inning, Serretti doubled home two more to end Whitaker’s day.
In an effort to stop the bleeding, State coach Elliott Avent went to his ace Matt Willadsen. But the strategy backfired when Honeycutt turned on Willadsen’s first pitch and sent it high over the left field wall to increase UNC’s lead to 8-1.
“It was a pleasure to watch. It’s extremely fun. And it’s not just Vance, either,” said Carlson, the beneficiary of the early offensive outburst. “The entire lineup, all of them can do damage.”
Although the Tar Heels were only able to manage one more run the rest of the way against Willadsen and State closer Chris Villaman, it was more than enough to hold on for the victory thanks to the effort of Carlson.
Pitching on short rest, the sophomore right-hander held the Wolfpack in check through the first five innings before tiring and allowing two runs in the sixth. He finished with six strikeouts while allowing only six hits and only one walk before giving way to his bullpen.
State’s final two runs came in a ninth-inning rally never really got off the ground.
“The story of the game was Carlson,” UNC coach Scott Forbes said. “I’ve always believed in all these years of being a pitching coach that there’s too much rest and four days is about perfect, and I’m proud of him. I’m happy for these guys and our program.”
While Forbes and his players are celebrating a championship that culminated a late-season surge that saw the Tar Heels win 15 of their last 17 games to earn a likely top 16 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, his counterpart Avent was lamenting yet another disappointing close call.
The Wolfpack have lost its last eight ACC championship games, prompting Avent to compare himself to Marv Levy, the coach that led the NFL’s Buffalo Bills to four straight Super Bowl losses.
Avent was, at least, able to take solace in the fact that his team bounced back from last year’s conference tournament setback to earn a trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
“Today’s loss definitely hurt,” the State coach said. “But I think now it’s just a matter of forgetting and moving on and being ready for next week and trying to just play baseball and see how far we can go.”