Heading into a big matchup against No. 9 South Carolina, the North Carolina baseball team was 1-6 in its last seven games — dropping consecutive weekend series against N.C. State and Florida State.
On the other hand, the Gamecocks had been on a tear, winning eight out of their last nine. The team was fresh off a series victory against the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens and a sweep of the preseason-No. 1 Florida Gators the weekend before.
Although the teams seemed to be trending in opposite directions heading into the border rivalry matchup, the Tar Heels were not beat down and triumphed with a 3-2 win on Tuesday night at Truist Field in Charlotte.
They were approaching this game with the same confidence they have shown all season long, which is critical for a young team faced with a tough schedule.
“We practiced really hard," head coach Scott Forbes told the Tar Heels before the game. “We talked about the importance of having to work hard to get what you want.”
Feeding off the energy of their skipper, the Tar Heels came out aggressive early in the first with a leadoff triple from Angel Zarate, followed by an RBI single from Justice Thompson to give UNC an early lead.
This hot start was exactly what the Tar Heels were looking for.
“Obviously we wanted to get off to a good start after this weekend," right fielder Caleb Roberts said. “Angel set the tone right away by hitting that triple and (Thompson) drove him in. We just put pressure on them right away.”
The lead gave the Tar Heels some early momentum, but it was short-lived. The Gamecocks responded in the bottom of the first with a sacrifice fly from slugger Wes Clarke to tie things back up, 1-1.
After the first, both pitching staffs settled in, forcing fans to get comfortable for a long one in Charlotte.
The score stayed even into the top of the sixth until first-year Hunter Stokely rolled over on a grounder to second base to score Roberts from third, giving the Tar Heels a one-run lead.
But once again, the Gamecocks would respond. They added a run of their own via a homer in the bottom of the inning to tie the score at two. The game remained tied through the ninth, and the Tar Heels headed into their first extra-inning game of the season.
In the top of the tenth, the Tar Heels flashed their aggressiveness once again at the plate and got two runners on base with a bunt and an infield single. With the game hanging in the balance, Roberts — one of the team's best hitters — stepped to the plate.
After falling behind in an 0-2 count, Roberts seized the opportunity and ripped an RBI single up the middle to give the Tar Heels the lead.
“After I was down 0-2, I just reacted and stayed in there on a curveball and didn’t try to do too much with it and just barreled it up and found a hole," Roberts said.
Although earlier they had always found a way to respond, this time the Gamecocks wouldn’t strike back. Redshirt junior Caden O'Brien pitched a 1-2-3 10th to seal a much-needed victory.
For a young team looking for confidence heading into what is arguably their toughest stretch of the season in the coming weeks, the win was a big one. The Tar Heels came out with something to prove, and that will be the attitude they will need to showcase as they enter the thick of ACC competition.
“This was a big game,” Roberts said. “It was a good test to go up against South Carolina. They have a really good team and it shows a lot out of our entire team after this past weekend — bouncing back and coming out with something to prove.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.