Auburn beats UNC 14-7 to return to College World Series
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Auburn started so fast Monday that it all but secured a trip to the College World Series before North Carolina ever sent a batter to the plate.
Judd Ward hit a three-run homer to highlight the Tigers' 13-run first inning that stunned the host Tar Heels en route to a 14-7 victory, securing Auburn's first trip to Omaha since 1997.
Edouard Julien and Matt Scheffler each had two-run singles in the Tigers' overwhelming opening act, which turned the rest of the deciding game in the best-of-three NCAA super-regional series into a formality.
"They usually have different June plans," coach Butch Thompson said of Auburn fans. "I hope we have wrecked that for them and they have to find their way to Omaha, Nebraska."
The Tigers (38-26) finished with the second most runs in an inning of an NCAA Tournament game, which was more than enough to earn the program's fifth trip to the College World Series. It took almost three more hours before Auburn could finally celebrate, though, with the Tigers sprinting from the dugout at the final out and flinging water in the air before a meet-in-the-infield pileup.
"It's just unreal," Ward said.
The barrage began when UNC starter Joey Lancellotti walked the game's first four batters, an early sign of trouble for the Tar Heels' normally reliable pitching staff. Auburn had nine first-inning hits while UNC needed 65 pitches to record three outs before the Tar Heels (46-19) ever took a swing.
"Yeah, it was a long inning," said UNC's Michael Busch, adding: "Sometimes it's how baseball works. Today was just one of those days. That's life."
Auburn added only an RBI single in the seventh by Rankin Woley after its first-inning tear but finished with 18 hits.
Ashton McGee hit a three-run homer to right-center for the Tar Heels in the bottom of the fourth, while Aaron Sabato hit a two-run shot in the seventh and a solo one in the ninth. But any home-field energy had long since evaporated before McGee's blast, along with the chance for the Tar Heels to make it back to Omaha for a second straight season and eighth time under longtime coach Mike Fox.
"It's hard to get this close and then not be able to get there," Fox said.
Auburn didn't look likely for this type of run, especially after a frustrating showing in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. But the Tigers won all three games in last week's Atlanta Regional, including a sweep of No. 3 national seed and host Georgia Tech, to return to the super regionals for the second straight season.
Had Thompson seen signs his team was ready for a big move?
"Not until Atlanta," he said.
Fox said the team considered starting Joey Lancellotti, Connor Ollio and Will Sandy before deciding to go with Lancellotti in the ill-fated start.
"We felt like we needed 75 to 80, 80 to 85 pitches from Joey Lancellotti to win this game," Fox said.
Lancellotti (6-4) threw just four strikes among his 20 pitches while failing to secure an out. The Tar Heels used Ollio and Hansen Butler before Sandy got them out of the first inning. Sandy went on to allow one run on seven hits in 5 2/3 innings.
The win comes amid an emotional few weeks for the Tigers and Thompson, notably with the death of longtime Auburn broadcaster Rod Bramblett and his wife, Paula, in a car accident on May 25. Bramblett was best known for his football and basketball calls, but he had done play-by-play for Auburn baseball since 1993.
"If you've ever coached and you're in the moments and a game's about to end, it's amazing what runs through your mind," Thompson said. "I was talking to Rod and Paula Bramblett, who we've lost recently. I'm just, 'Rod, can you help me with that last out?'"