DURHAM -- When North Carolina (52-8) head coach Mike Fox was asked about his thought process in choosing freshman Taylore Cherry (1-0) to start the ACC championship game on Sunday, which the Tar Heels won 4-1 against Virginia Tech (38-20), he said, (Cherry) was the only one we had left.
Expecting laughter from the roomful of reporters, he was instead greeted by silence. Fox quickly added, That was supposed to funny.
It wasnt far from the truth, though. North Carolina came into Sunday having survived a 14-inning game on Friday and an 18-inning game the night before, the latter of which ended just 11 hours before the title game would begin.
The Tar Heels' bullpen was stretched thin, and the starter who was supposed to go Sunday (Chris Munnelly) had been used on Saturday night. Or Sunday morning, technically, as Munnellys stint went on past midnight.
And when North Carolina head coach Mike Fox announced that Cherry would get the start, the natural response was: Who?
Cherry, a 6-foot-8, 270-pound freshman, had pitched a total of 3 13 innings all season, and he had never gotten more than an inning of work at a time.
Hes every bit of that 6-8, 270, and Cherry looked like a grizzly bear on the mound. Facing the hottest-hitting team in the ACC Tournament, an admittedly nervous Cherry got out of his first inning after a Tyler Horan liner nailed him in the chest. He picked it up cleanly and got it to first base for the final out of the inning. That probably helped bring reality back into it, Cherry said.
Offensively, North Carolina did what it has done all season -- take advantage of opponents mistakes. All four UNC runs were scored on Virginia Tech errors. The Tar Heels' defense, though, didnt appear tired and helped pick up the freshman starter.
Cherry went five innings, allowing five hits and one earned run. Of his 89 pitches, he said all but maybe 10 were fastballs. And he didnt change what was working, even in the most pressure-packed situation of his young career.
In the fifth, Cherry was facing a bases-loaded situation with two outs and Virginia Techs hottest hitter, Chad Pinder, striding to the plate. He threw Pinder four pitches with a 3-2 count, and three of those were foul balls, including one that came perilously close to being a fair home run.
It was just a long strike, Cherry said of the shot. When it got to 3-2, all I was thinking was getting the ball over the plate, throwing fastballs not trying to strike him out but just trying to beat him, just try to get a ground ball.
Virginia Tech understood that it was going to have an advantage over a UNC team that was probably tired. The Hokies didnt even have to play on Saturday, but Pinder said that he actually stayed up to watch the entire UNC-N.C. State marathon. I dont know why, he admitted. I just couldnt sleep not knowing who we were playing. And the Hokies also knew theyd be going against a freshman pitcher who was incredibly inexperienced.
If Cherrys performance hadnt come at their expense, Virginia Tech head coach Pete Hughes might have enjoyed it a bit more. Cherry threw 3 13 innings all year long, and that kid pitched great. He really did. And on that stage? I was on the other side of it, but thats an awesome thing to see, Hughes said. I just think we were 1-2 hits from really putting some pressure on a kid without a whole lot of game experience.
The kid settled in and did a good job. Then hes all over the zone. He was just wild enough and then he gets back in the zone and then he throws 4-5 strikes in a pressure, bases-loaded situation to (Pinder). That kid did a great job for North Carolina today.
North Carolina was likely running on pure adrenaline, but the Heels have just found ways to win so often this season that this game didnt seem so bad. After all, they had just survived an 18-inning affair that felt like it would never end. What was one more game?
Fox said he could sense that this team was ready to win from the moment they arrived at the stadium. Our guys were really excited today in the stadium. I could just sense it. ...Very few of them, if any of them, really looked like they were tired, Fox said.
I really think our players after last night, I really think everybody thought it was pretty much our championship to win after last night. I didnt say that or hear anybody say it, but you could just sort of sense it this morning, that hopefully we didnt go through all that last night for nothing.
This was North Carolinas first ACC title since 2007, and the Tar Heels have gone to the College World Series since without winning it. But it certainly cant hurt. I dont know that there was any validation coming in, but this is a great accomplishment for this team. They played like champions this week, hearts of champions, Fox said.
An ACC Championship here is something that every one of those guys I know wrote it on their goal sheet. Theyll be able to always say they were 2013 ACC Champions, and they played in an 18-inning game and in front of the biggest crowd. There are a lot of great memories from this tournament theyll be able to take with them.