The North Carolina softball team (5-2) won its second game of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge on Saturday afternoon, beating Minnesota (4-4), 10-5.
The Tar Heels wasted no time to strike in the first inning. Fifth-year first baseman Kiersten Licea clobbered a pitch into left center, missing a home run by just a few feet. The double brought in two Tar Heels and delivered them the early lead. Each batter produced hard contact in the inning, but UNC could not produce any further damage.
Graduate transfer pitcher Bailey McCachren walked her first three batters and was quickly pulled for sophomoreCarlie Myrtle. A sacrifice fly brought in the Gophers’ first run of the game, but two groundouts back to Myrtle ended the high-scoring inning.
Licea’s hot start from the plate continued in the third. Leading off the inning, she drilled another pitch to left center, but this time managed to get the ball over the wall and double the Tar Heels' lead. The next batter, sophomore catcher Annie Kate Dalton, angled a double just inside the right field foul line but the Tar Heels left her stranded on third base.
The UNC lead did not last long, though. Despite registering two quick outs, a single and hit-by-pitch put two runners on for Minnesota. Designated hitter Addison Leschber cashed in with a three-run homer to dead center over the head of Bri Stubbs, giving the Gophers their first lead of the game. Senior third baseman Destiny Middleton ended the pressure by flashing her glove at the hot corner, preventing a potential two-run double.
In the fourth, UNC had a chance to strike back with a runner on second and two outs, but a diving catch by Minnesota’s Natalie DenHartog on the UNC logo in center field, robbed Middleton of a game-tying RBI.
The Gophers added to their lead with a two-out RBI single in the bottom of the frame, but Stubbs threw a dart to the catcher to prevent a second runner from scoring, keeping the deficit to just two.
UNC’s relentless attitude it have shown all season finally allowed them to tie the game in the fifth. Beginning with Licea’s third hit of the game and a heads-up stolen base, the Tar Heels scrapped together two runs and knotted the game up at five runs apiece.
Sophomore pitcher Lilli Backes entered the circle in the bottom of the inning in relief. As she has done all season, she found herself in a bases-loaded jam but evaded it with a strikeout in on the batter’s hands.
The Tar Heels finished off the comeback with a bang in the seventh. Redshirt senior Abby Settlemyre rocketed a no-doubt home run into the trees in center field. A two-run triple by junior Skyler Brooks later in the inning helped UNC build a sizeable lead it would run away with in the win.
Who stood out?
Backes shined again in the circle. Coming out in relief, she pitched three more innings of scoreless softball, allowing the offense to complete the comeback.
The entire offense contributed to the game, scoring its most runs of the season. Licea was the catalyst for the offense all night, going 3-5 with two extra bases hits.
When was it decided?
Settlemyre’s home run in the seventh was the turning point in a game of high-powered offenses. The Gophers could get nothing going against Backes, and a three-run deficit was too big a hill to climb in the final inning.
Why does it matter?
The win secured a sweep of the Gophers who were an NCAA Tournament team in 2022. If the Tar Heels want to reach the tournament for the first time in four years, they will need to win these games against high-caliber opponents.
When do they play next?
The Tar Heels return to Anderson Softball Stadium for the second leg of the doubleheader against No. 25 Maryland.
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