CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina took advantage of every opportunity it could. South Carolina let a golden one slip right through its fingers.
The No. 6 Gamecocks blew a 6-0 sixth-inning lead in the span of two innings Friday and dropped Game 1 of its Super Regional to No. 2 North Carolina, 9-6. The heads were hanging afterward, not just for losing, but for gift-wrapping a winnable game and handing it to the Tar Heels.
"They didn't beat us because we weren't at our best, but we didn't make it a great, great battle because we didn't play as good as we possibly can," USC coach Ray Tanner said. "That's the way the game is ... it'll humble you."
The Gamecocks still looked shell-shocked in the post-game press conference, and deservedly so. They seemingly had the game in hand after Robbie Grinestaff delivered a two-out, two-strike pinch-hit grand slam in the sixth, increasing a 2-0 lead to 6-0. Harris Honeycutt was getting the job done on the mound and the Gamecocks were 12 outs away from a win, not to mention one game closer to the College World Series.
Never miss a local story.
But then it fell apart with a series of two-out Tar Heel hits. Errors at the worst possible times and a shoddy bullpen let UNC know it was still in the game, and the Heels took advantage.
When the smoke cleared, the Gamecocks (45-19) were left staring at a sickening statistic -- all nine runs the Heels notched came with two outs, several set up when UNC batters reached on two-strike base knocks.
The Heels (52-12) blistered Honeycutt, Curtis Johnson and Will Atwood for all of their offense, and added two more runs when Jeff Jeffords inexplicably couldn't find the plate. Jeffords, drafted by the major leagues earlier Friday, walked his only two batters in the seventh, including one with the bases loaded that forced in the tying run.
Then there were the opportunities to get out of the big innings that also eluded the Gamecocks. Honeycutt gave up two straight two-out doubles to make it 6-1 in the sixth when Kyle Seager bounced a grounder to Reese Havens. Havens bobbled it, perhaps confused by a runner crossing right in front of the ball, and the Heels ended up scoring two more runs.
"We don't make a couple of plays defensively and when you combine that with an outstanding hitting team that they had, that's when you get yourself in trouble," Tanner said.
Then in the seventh, with two outs and Tim Federowicz on first, Josh Horton laced a shallow fly ball to left. Cheyne Hurst, replacing starter Jon Willard after Grinestaff had hit for him, charged in with his glove low and tried to make a shoestring catch.
Instead, the ball bounced under Hurst's glove for a double, which opened the floodgates. UNC quickly took a 7-6 lead, then added to it when Tim Fedroff hit a soft grounder off Atwood's leg, slowly rolling toward Havens.
Normally sure-handed (he'd only made 10 errors all season despite playing at the most error-prone position), Havens muffed the grounder and two more runs scored. The Heels led 9-6, the bullpen was in tatters and Tanner had no choice but to suck it up and play for the next day.
"I didn't make two plays that I always make tonight," said Havens, eyes barely peeking out from under the brim of his cap. "Pretty much, you can put four runs on me tonight. Nothing I can say other than it's my fault."
Tanner wasn't pointing out specific blame but mentioned he was disappointed in the bullpen's performance and how USC didn't take advantage of its opportunities. The only runs the Gamecocks scored were on Grinestaff's blast and a two-run shot from James Darnell, which gave USC a 2-0 lead on the game's first three pitches.
None of it mattered after the Tar Heels lashed two-strike hit after two-out hit, erasing a six-run deficit in the span of three outs over two innings. The Gamecocks, ever mindful of a Super Regional flop at Georgia last year after winning the first game, said they'd flush Friday and be ready today.
Game 2 is at 7 p.m. today. No one needed to remind the Gamecocks what happens with another miserable outing.
"There was never any doubt in my mind that the Tar Heels would come roaring back at us and they did just that," Tanner said. "You're up six to nothing and it'll get you. We'll try to get even (today)."