Opening loss new to UNC, but not this North Carolina team

For the program, this is unfamiliar territory. Never before in the six previous times North Carolina has hosted an NCAA super regional had the Tar Heels dropped the opener and had to play from behind.

For this team, this particular group, it’s nothing unusual at all.

North Carolina had to win the ACC tournament to even get a chance to host a regional, and the Tar Heels are only at home this weekend because of Georgia Tech’s inability to knock out Auburn, whose resiliency was on full display Saturday.

In 10 ACC series, the Tar Heels lost the Friday game five times, and still came back to win three of them. This group may be better equipped than any of its predecessors to handle these circumstances.

It will have to be.

“We’ve been in a few of them,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “We’ve lost some Friday games throughout the regular season and come back and won some series, the Virginia one. So we’re not in totally uncharted territory.”

North Carolina starting pitcher Tyler Baum (23) works from the mound in the first inning against Auburn during the NCAA Super Regional on Saturday, June 8, 2019 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

It is unprecedented in the NCAA tournament, though. North Carolina’s bullpen couldn’t hold the three-run lead Tyler Baum left it when the starter exited the game in the seventh; Auburn pounded out five runs in the eighth and four in the ninth on the way to an 11-7 win, only the Tar Heels’ third-ever loss at home in a super regional and the first in the first game.

North Carolina’s Danny Serretti (1) embraces starting pitcher Tyler Baum (23) after he completed 6.1 innings against Auburn during the NCAA Super Regional on Saturday, June 8, 2019 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

Even then, North Carolina had the would-be tying run at the plate with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth Saturday, perhaps the genesis of the comeback the Tar Heels will need over the next two days to make a second straight trip to the College World Series.

“How about that?” Fox said. “For us to get punched like that and get the tying run up there in the bottom of the ninth. We’re one swing away from tying the game.”

In the bigger picture, the last three weeks have been one long comeback for the Tar Heels, from the disastrous series against N.C. State to close out the regular season – the Wolfpack won the final two games in Chapel Hill by a combined 22-2 score – to the seven-game winning streak that took North Carolina through the ACC tournament and last week’s NCAA regional entirely unscathed.

They’ll also be able to draw upon their ACC experience: The Tar Heels lost Friday night openers to Miami, Virginia Tech and Virginia only to post Saturday and Sunday wins.

Those weren’t winner-take-all. Those didn’t have the same reward at the end for the winner. Or the same finality for the loser. But the Tar Heels will try to draw on that experience all the same.

North Carolina’s Aaron Sabato (19) slides into home on a single by Ike Freeman in the fifth inning to give the Tar Heels’ a 4-2 lead over Auburn during the NCAA Super Regional on Saturday, June 8, 2019 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

“It’s a series, so it’s pretty much like every other series,” North Carolina freshman Aaron Sabato said. “You lose the first one, you’ve got to win the next two. You win, you’ve still got to win one more to take the series. For us, we’re just thinking about coming back to win two games and go to Omaha.”

That didn’t even seem like a possibility a few weeks ago, when the Tar Heels staggered into the postseason only to go tearing through it, right up until everything came to an abrupt halt in the late innings Saturday. It’s all still out there for North Carolina, two wins away from a 12th trip to the College World Series, same as the Tar Heels were Friday, only with any margin for error gone.

Now this team will have to do something North Carolina has never done before to do something the Tar Heels have done so often.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.