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UNC baseball hangs on, sweeps West Virginia in NCAA Tournament Chapel Hill Super Regional

North Carolina’s run through this NCAA baseball tournament has come to be defined by what its players and coaches and even many of its fans, hungry for a long-elusive national championship in this sport, have come to define as “Bosh magic.” It can be difficult to describe, that mysterious kind of sorcery, but it is the sort of thing that now is known by sight and feel inside Boshamer Stadium.

Vance Honeycutt’s game-winning, two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning on Friday night in Game 1 of the Tar Heels’ Super Regional against West Virginia: That was some Bosh magic. The way UNC rallied last week for dramatic victories in its tournament regional against Long Island and twice against LSU: also some Bosh magic.

And maybe there was even a bit more of it back at Boshamer on Saturday night, what with Honeycutt leading off Game 2 of this Super Regional the way he finished Game 1: with a home run to left field, and on the first pitch of the game, no less. How’s that for a start?

North Carolina’s Vance Honeycutt (7) connects from a home run in the first inning to take a 1-0 lead against West Virginia during the NCAA Super Regional on Saturday, June 8, 2024 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina’s Vance Honeycutt (7) connects from a home run in the first inning to take a 1-0 lead against West Virginia during the NCAA Super Regional on Saturday, June 8, 2024 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Mostly, though, the Tar Heels saved the theatrics. For once there was no need for late runs or rally caps.

There was, instead, just a wire-to-wire lead and an almost-trouble-free 2-1 victory. Emphasis on almost, given the Mountaineers late-game attempts to create some magic of their own. Still, compared to the way UNC has had to scrap for victories of late; how it has had to stave off defeat to win in the most improbable of ways, again and again, this was relatively easy. Or easier. And now the Tar Heels are headed back to Omaha and the College World Series for the first time since 2018.

Cue the dog pile, which proved to be part jubilation and part exhalation, the Tar Heels holding on.

North Carolina coach Scott Forbes embraces first baseman Hunter Stokley (45) as they celebrate their 2-1 victory over West Virginia, clinching the Super Regional and advancing to the College World Series on Saturday, June 8, 2024 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina coach Scott Forbes embraces first baseman Hunter Stokley (45) as they celebrate their 2-1 victory over West Virginia, clinching the Super Regional and advancing to the College World Series on Saturday, June 8, 2024 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.

“Oh, man,” Scott Forbes, UNC’s fourth-year head coach, said when he first sat down for his postgame press conference. It was as if he was taking a breath for the first time in about an hour, after the Tar Heels prevailed and stranded three West Virginia base runners in the bottom of the ninth inning. Somebody told Forbes he looked nervous before the game. He was, he said afterward, and the nervy ninth couldn’t have helped calm him any.

From the very beginning, though, Forbes and his players made this the goal. Forbes began the first team meeting of the season with a “let’s get it out of the way” kind of moment, as he put it, when he told his players, “This team’s good enough to get to Omaha.” And not just to get there, Honeycutt said, “but to win it.”

If UNC’s first Super Regional victory was defined by resilience and perseverance and especially by its hitting, with two ninth-inning home runs that allowed the Tar Heels to overcome a one-run deficit in their final at-bat, then Saturday night was about their arms. Or at least one of their arms, especially — the right one, belonging to freshman Jason Decaro.

North Carolina starting pitcher Jason Decaro (29) works from the mound in the second inning against West Virginia during the NCAA Super Regional on Saturday, June 8, 2024 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina starting pitcher Jason Decaro (29) works from the mound in the second inning against West Virginia during the NCAA Super Regional on Saturday, June 8, 2024 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Decaro graduated from his Long Island, New York, high school a year early so he could enroll at UNC. If he hadn’t done that, he would have been graduating right about now. If he felt any nerves about pitching on the biggest stage of his life Saturday, he did not show them. He appeared unbothered by the moment, unfazed by the reality that he is but a freshman, younger than most, and freshman aren’t supposed to look so cool and composed amid these kinds of circumstances.

But no matter. Decaro was that cool and composed — and effective — from the start and through when he left the game in the bottom of the seventh, with one out. In between, Decaro allowed two hits. One of them came in the second inning and the other against the final batter he faced. He allowed one West Virginia hitter to reach second base, but no more and no farther than that.

It was a resounding rebound of a performance for Decaro, who said he “wasn’t too happy with last weekend,” after he allowed three runs in that closer-than-expected victory against Long Island, and two more runs in two innings in another game against LSU. Saturday, with a long wait until the 8 p.m. start time, Decaro said he received a lot of encouraging text messages. UNC’s coaching staff worked to keep him calm and prepared. Whatever the advice, it helped.

North Carolina coach Scott Forbes has a word with starting pitcher Jason Decaro (29) before removing him from the mound in the seventh inning against West Virginia during the NCAA Super Regional on Saturday, June 8, 2024 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina coach Scott Forbes has a word with starting pitcher Jason Decaro (29) before removing him from the mound in the seventh inning against West Virginia during the NCAA Super Regional on Saturday, June 8, 2024 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The Mountaineers scored their lone run only after Forbes relieved Decaro in the seventh with Dalton Pence, a sophomore left-hander. Pence struck out the first batter he faced but walked the second, and then Kyle West, who hit two home runs Friday night, singled to left field to drive in West Virginia’s lone run.

A quiet fell over the home crowd. An anxiety set in, with two Mountaineers on base.

Pence, though, struck out Ben Lumsden to escape the threat and end the inning, and the West Virginia eighth came and went with little trouble: three up and three down. The Tar Heels, whose second run came in the third inning on Parks Harber’s single to left (which drove in who else but Honeycutt), kept the margin narrow late. There were no insurance runs.

That made for some stressful moments, for UNC, when West Virginia’s Sam White led off the bottom of the ninth with a single to right field. Pence struck out Reed Chumley on a low and deceptive curveball but unleashed a wild pitch that allowed Armani Guzman, pinch-running for White, to advance to second. Pence then walked Grant Hussey to put two runners on.

The breaths became deeper throughout Boshamer. A strikeout followed but then Pence walked West to load the bases, and all the anxiety of these recent nights returned. Moments later came relief, at last, when Pence coaxed a high-bouncing ball to the right side of the infield. Harber fielded it in back of first base and flipped it to Pence, who stepped on the bag just before Lumsden, the batter, attempted to beat the play with a head-first dive.

“I don’t know if y’all know this, but I’m not a runner,” Pence said, in a deadpan tone, after he’d made the final out. “So I had to dig it pretty good to get over there.”

North Carolina’s infielder Jackson Van De Brake (8), catcher Luke Stevenson (44), first baseman Parks Harber and closing pitcher Dalton Pence (49) celebrate after the final out and their 2-1 victory over West Virginia, clinching the Super Regional and advancing to the College World Series on Saturday, June 8, 2024 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.

And so began a celebration that’d been a long time coming. UNC lost Super Regionals it hosted in 2019 and 2022. The Tar Heels lost regionals on the road in 2021 and last year, when Iowa defeated UNC twice and sent the Tar Heels home after a game that lasted 13 innings.

There’d been heartbreak and disappointment during these past six years, the retirement of beloved coach Mike Fox and the promotion of Forbes, his longtime assistant, and there’d been a lot of what-ifs and season endings that felt sour; felt like a let-down, given the Tar Heels’ standard. And now they’re headed back to the College World Series.

Finally, Forbes could breathe a bit. So could his players. From the beginning, this was the goal. Decaro found himself somewhere at the bottom of that celebratory pile. Forbes walked around in a happy daze, a permanent smile stuck on his face. The crowd lingered and the night ended here with the many who’d made up the largest audience that had ever gathered in this stadium — almost 4,500 strong — chanting a reminder of where this season will end for UNC:

“O-MA-HA! ... O-MA-HA!”