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DeCock: N.C. State gets its wish: Shot at rival UNC with trip to ACC title game on line

By Luke DeCock
ldecock@newsobserver.com
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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DURHAM It was going to be the biggest game of the ACC tournament anyway, by far the most anticipated, arguably more than even the championship game. The stakes Saturday night are even higher now, after N.C. State’s win over Miami on Friday.

Sixth-ranked North Carolina and ninth-ranked N.C. State will renew a rivalry that finished in a three-way split between the Tar Heels, Wolfpack and rain during the regular season. This time, the winner will not only claim Triangle bragging rights but advance to the ACC championship game Sunday.

“We definitely wanted another crack at them in that third game, because we think we can hang with them,” N.C. State shortstop Trea Turner said. “Obviously, they’re a very good team and they’ve proven that all year. It’s going to be tough, even with Carlos (Rodon) on the bump. It’s going to be tough, but it’s going to be exciting to see that matchup.”

Thanks to the ACC’s somewhat odd set of tournament tiebreakers, N.C. State’s 7-1 win over Miami early Friday made North Carolina’s game against Clemson late Friday night inconsequential. It was a small price to pay for pumping a little more excitement into Saturday night at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

The Wolfpack saved ace starter Rodon for just this eventuality, getting four serviceable innings from spot starter Logan Jernigan on Friday against the Hurricanes, pitching his way out of a bases-loaded jam in the third as Miami could muster only one run. The Wolfpack’s potent bullpen took over from there, with three relievers combining to allow one hit.

Rodon (8-2, 3.86) will face Hobbs Johnson (4-0, 2.18) in a battle of powerful teams with contrasting styles: the speed of N.C. State as epitomized by Turner and the power of North Carolina as epitomized by third baseman Colin Moran.

“North Carolina and N.C. State, those are two top-10 teams,” Miami coach Jim Morris said. “Great pitching. Great programs.”

Morris should know. His team was outscored a combined 17-1 by the two in-state teams Thursday and Friday.

(Watching Miami struggle to a sub-.500 ACC record in baseball is a reminder that conference expansion, however well intended, can have unexpected results – on what planet would the Hurricanes win an ACC basketball championship while falling behind in football and baseball? The ACC would be wise not to count its basketball chickens quite yet in this latest round of expansion.)

In the two games in Raleigh at the end of April, North Carolina was ranked No. 1 and won the opener 7-1 behind ace Kent Emanuel and N.C. State, then No. 6, responded with a 7-3 win in the second game with Rodon on the mound. The third was rained out, leaving unfinished business for Saturday. For the Wolfpack, it isn’t just about this year. It’s about last year as well. N.C. State played North Carolina in Greensboro in 2012 with a shot at the title game on the line for the Wolfpack. Rodon threw nine shutout innings but the Tar Heels won in the 12th to play spoiler, sending Miami to the championship instead of the Wolfpack.

“We fell a little short and we still have that on our minds this year,” Turner said.

That game drew a record-setting crowd of 10,229, predominantly N.C. State fans. Who knows how many will show up on Saturday, with the same prize on the line for both teams this time around?

The official capacity of DBAP is 10,000, but the Bulls’ single-game record is 11,060. Friday afternoon, the ACC was already selling standing-room-only tickets for Saturday night. It may not be the ACC championship game, but it’s certainly going to look and feel like it.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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