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UNC baseball outlasts LSU, advances to NCAA Tournament Chapel Hill Regional final

Vance Honeycutt blasted two home runs into left field as the North Carolina Tar Heels beat LSU, the defending national champion, 6-2 on Saturday night in Game 2 of regional play in the NCAA Tournament in front of an announced crowd of 3,919 at a packed Boshamer Stadium.

The victory puts the fourth-seeded Tar Heels (44-13) one win away from advancing to — and hosting — Super Regionals. UNC is seeking what would be its 13th regional title.

“We don’t have anything to celebrate yet, but that was a good ballgame between two powerhouse baseball programs,” UNC head coach Scott Forbes said. “We’ll take that win and move on and get ready for tomorrow night.”

This matchup marked the first time since the 2013 College World Series that LSU and UNC had met on the diamond. The Tigers will now face Wofford — which beat LIU earlier Saturday — in a win-or-go-home game on Sunday for a chance to play UNC a second time.

North Carolina bull pen celebrates as North Carolina’s Vance Honeycutt (7) runs past after he hit a three run home run during the fifth inning of North Carolina’s 6-2 victory against LSU in the NCAA Regional at Boshamer on Saturday, June 1, 2024.
North Carolina bull pen celebrates as North Carolina’s Vance Honeycutt (7) runs past after he hit a three run home run during the fifth inning of North Carolina’s 6-2 victory against LSU in the NCAA Regional at Boshamer on Saturday, June 1, 2024.

For a while, this clash between the Tigers and the Tar Heels was shaping up to be a real pitcher’s duel, as the contest was scoreless through four innings.

After notching just two hits and striking out seven times in the first four frames against LSU’s Luke Holman, Carolina’s bats finally came alive in the fifth. Alex Madera got on base with a bunt down the third base line, Colby Wilkerson then slapped a standup double into right field, and then Honeycutt brought both in by drilling a 413-foot homer into the trees beyond the left field fence.

Honeycutt followed that up by hitting another home run — this one, a solo shot that sailed 428 feet over the left field wall — in the bottom of the seventh.

“(Holman) got me the first two times. I just went up there and committed to the fastball and got one,” Honeycutt said of his first homer. “I was probably pressing a little bit. Just a reminder right then to just kind of soak it in and go have fun.”

Honeycutt’s pair of home runs — which had exit velocities of 111 and 107 mph, respectively — made him the sixth player in ACC history to hit at least 60 home runs in a career. Honeycutt now has 61, trailing the record-holder, former Wake Forest slugger Brock Wilken, by 10.

“That was a no-doubter, for sure,” Forbes said of Honeycutt’s first home run. Of the second, he described it as: “Boom. Just a bazooka over the net.”

North Carolina’s Vance Honeycutt (7) celebrates as he runs towards home plate during North Carolina’s game against LSU in the NCAA Regional at Boshamer on Saturday, June 1, 2024.
North Carolina’s Vance Honeycutt (7) celebrates as he runs towards home plate during North Carolina’s game against LSU in the NCAA Regional at Boshamer on Saturday, June 1, 2024.

Before the first home run, Honeycutt had been 0-for-6 with four strikeouts in regional play. It was Honeycutt’s seventh multi-homer game for his career, tying the program record set by Chris Maples from 1999 to 2002.

“It’s incredible how hard he hits the ball and how far it goes,” UNC pitcher Shea Sprague said of Honeycutt. “It’s a lot of fun to watch him. I’m glad he’s in our lineup and I don’t have to pitch against him.”

Sprague, a left-handed junior, got the start on the mound for UNC and pitched admirably for 4.1 innings, allowing just two hits and no runs while fanning three LSU hitters. Senior righthander Ben Peterson relieved him midway through the fifth inning after Sprague allowed runners on second and first base. Peterson got out of the inning quickly, getting former N.C. State slugger Tommy White – who transferred to LSU in 2022 – to hit into a 5-4-3 double-play on the first pitch he threw.

Peterson got into a bit of trouble in the top of the seventh, loading the bases and then walking in a run. Left-handed sophomore Dalton Pence relieved him and walked in another run before getting the next LSU batter, Hayden Travinski, to hit into a 6-4-3 double-play by throwing some well-targeted off-speed pitches.

North Carolina’s Shea Sprague (28) throws a pitch during the third inning of North Carolina’s game against LSU in the NCAA Regional at Boshamer on Saturday, June 1, 2024.
North Carolina’s Shea Sprague (28) throws a pitch during the third inning of North Carolina’s game against LSU in the NCAA Regional at Boshamer on Saturday, June 1, 2024.

“Credit Pence. He made three really good pitches in a row to Travinski,” LSU coach Jay Johnson said. “He made three really difficult pitches to do anything with, other than to hit a ground ball. He pitched himself out of that.”

The Tar Heels added two insurance runs in the eighth when Gavin Gallaher singled to left to score Jackson Van De Brake, and Madera hit into a fielder’s choice to score Anthony Donofrio. Pence closed the game out, striking out one to notch a save in a hitless top of the ninth inning.

UNC will face the winner of the Wofford-LSU matchup Sunday at 6 p.m.