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UNC baseball walks off on West Virginia in Game 1 of Chapel Hill Super Regional

It has been six long years since North Carolina reached Omaha, Nebraska, and the College World Series, and that’s something of a drought for a college baseball program that had become accustomed to competing on the sport’s greatest stage. The Tar Heels appeared in the College World Series seven times between 2006 and 2018, but they haven’t been back since.

If they return this year they’ll owe it to no shortage of late-game magic that has propelled them throughout this NCAA Tournament — the kind that struck again Friday night in the bottom of the ninth, just when the odds of a UNC victory were starting to grow longer and longer. With how the Tar Heels have been winning of late, though, perhaps they were right where they wanted to be.

UNC trailed by a run entering its half of the ninth inning, and faced the specter of losing the first game of a best-of-three Super Regional against West Virginia. The Mountaineers, buoyed by timely hitting, riding the high of their first Super Regional appearance in school history and the left arm of ace pitcher Derek Clark, were on the verge of closing out a crucial victory.

And then, in something of a blur, the Tar Heels hit two home runs, scored three runs and walked off the field in a celebratory mob after Vance Honeycutt’s two-run home run gave UNC an 8-6 victory. With a win Saturday, or in a decisive third game on Sunday, the Tar Heels would return to the College World Series.

Their rally began from the get-go in the ninth inning. It began when Luke Stevenson, a freshman who is UNC’s No. 6 hitter, sent Clark’s first pitch of the inning deep into the deepest part of the park — back toward the wall at the limit of center field.

The ball kept sailing and West Virginia center fielder Skylar King kept going back, chasing, hoping, there was a brief moment when he jumped at the fence and looked like he might’ve caught it.

He did not. Home run, and tie game, and bedlam at the Bosh, which was witness to so many dramatic moments last weekend, with UNC winning games that looked lost, and doing it again and again.

And doing it here on Friday night, too, with even more theatrics and another one of those moments that will endure. Stevenson’s home run was one of those, and it spoiled Clark’s pursuit of a complete game.

But then moments later, after a pitching change, came another moment that immediately entered the canon of UNC baseball, and this stadium. With a runner on first and two outs, Vance Honeycutt, the Tar Heels’ junior center fielder and best player, blasted a drive to deep left field.

He knew as soon as it left his bat. Everyone else did, too.