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UNC softball earns first conference sweep since 2019 with triumph over N.C. State

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Head coach Donna J. Papa talks to the UNC softball team before the softball game against Elon at Anderson Stadium on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023.

The North Carolina softball team added to its late-season success by going undefeated at rival N.C. State for its first conference series sweep since 2019.

After not having traveled in nearly three weeks, the Tar Heels headed to Raleigh this past weekend for a three-game matchup against the Wolfpack. North Carolina entered the series on a hot streak, having won seven of its last eight games and only dropping two contests in April. 

Head coach Donna J. Papa attributed the newfound success to better situational hitting and execution. 

Although UNC hadn’t hit the road in some time, it didn’t pose an obstacle against the Wolfpack. In fact, Papa said the team hardly considers the trip to Raleigh a road series, and the Tar Heels were able to warm up on their home field because of the proximity to Chapel Hill.

UNC defeated N.C. State 5-4 on Friday night, with all four of the Wolfpack's runs coming in the fourth inning. North Carolina hoped to capitalize on its momentum Saturday, but the game was rained out and turned Sunday into a doubleheader.

Sophomore pitcher Lilli Backes took the mound in the first game after picking up her sixth straight win in the circle just two days earlier with a career-high 10 strikeouts.

Game one of the doubleheader was a pitcher's duel, and Backes got the job done. With nine strikeouts and only four hits allowed, Backes led the Tar Heels to a 4-2 win to clinch the series.

“I’ve worked on keeping batters off balance with my off speed and throwing competitive pitches out of the zone,” Backes said. “This was a really big one for us to beat our in-state rival.”

The offense in game two was paced by fifth-year Kiersten Licea. She kickstarted the offense by leading off the second inning with a solo homer and also led off the fourth with another home run.

“I was just as surprised as everyone else,” Licea said. “Keeping the momentum going definitely helped me approach the at bats.”

Game two of the doubleheader didn’t seem as promising for the Tar Heels. UNC never trailed in the first game, but the team found itself in a 3-2 deficit heading into the top of the seventh of the final game of the series.

Aside from another home run from Licea in the fourth inning, the bats were cold for most of the game. However, the team pulled off the comeback thanks to a go-ahead inside-the-park home run by sophomore Alex Brown, who has now logged a  hit in 12 consecutive games.

Needing just three outs to clinch the sweep, Backes came in to close the door and retired the Wolfpack to seal the 5-3 win.

This series victory contributes to the Tar Heels’ late-season success as they look to finish in the top six in the conference and earn an ACC Tournament bye. The team's next test will be next weekend when they travel to Georgia Tech, where the Tar Heels will look to maintain their sixth-place standing. 

“It’s been a little run here near the end; hopefully we learned something,” Papa said. “Our destiny is kind of in our own hands.”

When asked about the rest of the season and the team’s postseason outlook, Backes and Licea had just one thing to say.

“The Heels are hot.”

@lindseyashe_

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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