On Thursday night, the No. 6 seeded North Carolina softball team (26-28, 13-11 ACC) fell to the No. 3 seeded and No. 10 nationally ranked Clemson Tigers (46-8, 19-6 ACC), 2-1, in the 2023 ACC Tournament, hosted by Notre Dame at Melissa Cook Stadium.
With ACC Player of the Year Valerie Cagle in the circle for the Tigers, hits were hard to come by for the Tar Heels. In the first inning, UNC went three up and three down and Cagle threw two strikeouts.
The Tar Heels’ regular season struggles looked like they were going to seep into the game early as they picked up an error on what could have been the third out in the bottom of the first. The error was the 67th of the season for a UNC team — the most errors in the ACC this season.
Junior right fielder Skyler Brooks reached base in the second inning for UNC’s first base runner of the night, but senior third baseman Destiny Middleton was left in scoring position.
The Tigers’ bats struck first as their first hit of the game — a single from graduate student Ally Miklesh — brought in a run for Clemson. After two strong innings, UNC sophomore left-handed pitcher Lilli Backes began to give up some opportunities to the Tigers, who reached base three times in the third.
A single from Brooks in the fourth inning paired with some aggressive base running from senior second baseman Abby Settlemyre, helped UNC cross home plate and tie the game at 1-1.
As a pitchers battle ensued between Backes and Cagle, the two teams entered the fifth knotted up at one run.
Just as they had all night, Backes and Cagle went head-to-head with the Tar Heel pitcher striking out Cagle to strand two runners for the Tigers and send both teams into the sixth still evened up. Cagle came back and punched in her eleventh strikeout to close the top of the sixth and tie her season best for strikeouts.
As Cagle sat down her tenth-straight Tar Heel, the Tigers headed to the plate in the bottom of the seventh with a chance for a walk-off run — but it never came.
Backes’ seventh strikeout fell in unison with the seventh inning as UNC improbably forced extra innings with the highly favored Tigers.
Clemson turned a double-play to keep the Tar Heels off the board yet again in the top of the eighth. As Clemson re-entered the batter’s box, Miklesh hit a double on the first pitch of the inning for the Tigers. It was the first extra base hit of the game for either team. Then, Miklesh stole third base, and she was in scoring position with no outs.
A mishandled pitch bobbled past the plate, and the dagger in UNC’s season rounded third and crossed home before the Tar Heels could recover. The Tigers won 2-1 off the heads up running from Miklesh.
Who stood out?
As dominant as Cagle was in the circle for Clemson, Backes was able to limit the Tigers’ offense for much of the game. She highlighted a UNC defense that was determined to overcome its defensive woes from the regular season. After suffering one error in the first inning, the Tar Heels cleaned it up for most of the game.
When was it decided?
When Miklesh stole third base in the bottom of the eighth inning as Clemson had zero outs, it was likely that she would reach home plate and claim the win for the Tigers.
Why does it matter?
The loss ended the Tar Heels’ season as they almost certainly will not advance to play in the NCAA Tournament later this month. UNC finished the regular season one game below .500 before losing to Clemson on Thursday.
The matchup was the first of the season between the two teams, but it marked the eighth time they have faced off all-time since Clemson introduced its softball program in 2020. The win for the Tigers gives them an 8-0 advantage over UNC in the series.
When do they play next?
The loss cut UNC’s last chance efforts to make a push for the NCAA Tournament short, and ended its season.
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