By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Vance Honeycutt and Alberto Osuna powered into the UNC history books and led an offensive assault that earned the Tar Heels a winner-takes-all clash with VCU.
Carolina, which defeated Georgia 6–5 in an elimination game earlier in the day, avenged a Saturday night loss to the Rams with a 19–8 victory Sunday night to end their 17-game win streak.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with what we saw,” UNC assistant coach Bryant Gaines said. “And I’m excited that we get another opportunity to play again [Monday].”
VCU (42–19) and UNC (41–20) play at 6 p.m. Monday (ACC Network) for the Chapel Hill Regional title. Head coach Scott Forbes returns after serving his two-game suspension. In the ninth inning, the crowd was chanting Forbes’ name. After the game, VCU coach Shawn Stiffler said that Forbes would come back a “folk hero.”
Carolina is trying to win a regional title out of the losers bracket for the first time in 10 tries since the current format was first used in 1999.
If Carolina advances to a Super Regional, it could be a host. The Chapel Hill Regional is matched with the Stillwater Regional. No. 1 region seed Oklahoma State plays No. 2 Arkansas for that regional title Monday night. If UNC and Arkansas win Monday, the Tar Heels would host a Super Regional between the two. If UNC and Oklahoma State win, though, the Heels would play a Super Regional against the Cowboys in Stillwater, Okla.
VCU gave up a season-high run total and double-digit runs for the first time since their last previous loss, a 12–6 May 4 defeat at Virginia.
Honeycutt (top photo) in the seven-run first inning and Osuna in the second inning hit two-run homers to become the first teammates in Carolina program history to hit at least 20 home runs in a season. Honeycutt has 23 and Osuna 20.
Honeycutt said that those two made that history with a lot of hard work.
“He’s always in the cages trying to perfect his craft,” he said. “I admire that about him. Whenever you see one guy doing it, that kind of just makes everyone want to follow.”
The Tar Heels have hit 98 home runs this season in 61 games, second only in program history to the 108 the 2002 team hit in 61 games.
After UNC’s offense had an uncharacteristic off night in a 4–3 Saturday loss to VCU, the Heels batted around twice against the Rams and broke loose for 25 runs in two Sunday victories. The 19 runs Sunday night were the most by UNC in an NCAA tournament game since a 19–11 win over Houston in 2018.
UNC needed a pitcher to come through with solid performances for the overworked staff and got them out of the bullpen from left-hander Caden O’Brien (3–0) and right-hander Connor Bovair, who both also pitched in the afternoon game.
O’Brien pitched four scoreless innings with two strikeouts before exiting with no outs in the sixth after giving up a two-run double to Logan Amiss and yielding three runs.
“The fact that he pitched in the first game and did that again in the second game, it gave us some length. It just shows the competitiveness, work ethic and the makeup of him,” Gaines, UNC’s pitching coach, said of O’Brien. “We tell those guys all the time that you’ve got to be prepared for that opportunity when we need to the most.”
Bovair finished the game with three shutout innings and gave up two hits to earn his first save of the season.
“The thing that we talked about first and foremost is resilience, being able to handle anything that gets thrown at you,” Gaines said. “This is the most fun I’ve had coaching a pitching staff this year.”
Gaines said that he has no idea what his pitching plan will be for Monday night’s game.
In a bizarre twist, VCU was called for runner’s interference at second base to trigger an inning-ending double play one night after UNC was at the wrong end of a similar call. Both calls were questionable, with three of the four umpires from Saturday night also working Sunday night’s game.
VCU took a brief lead on Tyler Locklear’s two-run homer in the top of the first. But the first four Tar Heels got hits in the bottom of the first in the highest-scoring first inning of the season, as Johnny Castagnozzi’s solo shot followed Honeycutt’s blast.
UNC came out aggressive early in the count against VCU starter Maddison Furman (6-1).
“We knew that the guy was going to come at us, he was going to throw some strikes, so we were just being aggressive and being competitive,” Honeycutt said. “We were able to find some barrels and good things happened.”
Angel Zarate’s two-run home run to right in the third bounced off the brick at the back of the Karen Shelton Stadium. Mikey Madej rocketed a two-run triple down the right-field line in a five-run fifth.
UNC 19, VCU 8
Chapel Hill Regional
North Carolina 15, Hofstra 4
VCU 8, Georgia 1
Georgia 24, No. 4 Hofstra 1; Hofstra eliminated
VCU 4, North Carolina 3
North Carolina 6, No. 2 Georgia 5; Georgia eliminated
North Carolina 19, VCU 8
Monday’s championship game
No. 1 North Carolina (41–20) vs. No. 3 VCU (42–19), 6 p.m., ACC Network
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications