The North Carolina softball team (4-2) beat Minnesota (4-2), 1-0, on Friday evening to begin the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Sophomore pitcher Lilli Backes escaped a jam in the top of the first, leaving two runners stranded with a groundout to senio Destiny Middleton at third. The inning ended scoreless with the Tar Heels going down 1-2-3 in the bottom half of the frame.
Senior outfielder Bri Stubbs struck first for the Tar Heels in the second inning. A single from sophomore catcher Annie Kate Dalton and a stolen base from pinch-runner Aneshia Jordan put a woman in scoring position for UNC. Stubbs converted the chance with a two-out double off the retreating shortstop’s glove, giving the Tar Heels a 1-0 lead.
UNC threatened again in the third after fifth-year first baseman Kiersten Licea rocketed a double into left center, putting runners on second and third. Minnesota pitcher Autumn Pease evaded damage, though, by striking out redshirt junior utility player Kianna Jones looking.
Minnesota left runners on base in the fifth inning. The Gophers had women on first and second with just one out, but Backes dug deep once again. Catcher Dalton caught a tipped third strike to end the threat and keep the Tar Heels up one. The pitching duel continued in the bottom of the frame with Pease retiring UNC in order.
Backes played with even more danger in the sixth. Her second hit-by-pitch of the evening produced a bases loaded chance for the Gophers. As was the case all evening, though, Backes refused to yield. A weak pop out to resdhirt senior Abby Settlemyre at second base ended the jam, and the Tar Heels entered the seventh with the lead.
The Gophers manufactured one last threat opportunity in the last inning. A grounder over the third base bag sneaked under the glove of Destiny Middleton and put a runner on third. With two outs, though, Settlemyre fielded a tough grounder and threw the ball to first to end the game.
Who stood out?
Backes continued to dominate the early part of the season. As a first-year in 2022, she led the team in appearances but amassed a 6.41 earned run average. She entered tonight’s game with a much-improved ERA of 2.10 and shrunk it even further with a complete game shutout
Stubbs’ clutch RBI double in the second proved to be the only score the Tar Heels needed. In a game of offensive struggles, her hit was the turning point in the game.
When was it decided?
With both pitchers commanding the circle, the outcome was not determined until the final pitch. Minnesota could not convert on chances all night, and Backes escaped a final jam in the seventh to deliver the Tar Heels the win.
Why does it matter?
This was the first of four games this weekend against teams from the Big Ten, a premiere conference in college softball. Winning these early non-conference games can provide a spark for a team that has struggled in recent years.
The success of Backes to begin the season is also an encouraging sign for the Tar Heels. The sophomore came into the season with high expectations, and she has firmly cemented herself as UNC’s ace.
When do they play next?
The Tar Heels will continue the ACC/Big Ten challenge on Saturday with a doubleheader against Minnesota and Maryland.
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