(photos by Tim Cowie, DavidsonPhotos.com)
The magic continues for Davidson.
The Wildcats, making their first NCAA Tournament appearance, knocked around North Carolina ace J.B. Bukauskas in building an 8-0 lead after five innings and held on to beat the Tar Heels, the No. 2 national seed, 8-4 Friday night at Boshamer Stadium.
“I’m still kind of flabbergasted at the kind of things these guys pull off,” Davidson coach Dick Cooke said by phone late Friday night.
The Wildcats (33-24) may have been on their ninth life during the final weekend of the regular season at Massachusetts. Davidson dropped the first game of its doubleheader and trailed 5-0 in the ninth of the second game with its postseason hopes for the Atlantic-10 tourney on shaky ground. The Wildcats rallied for seven runs to earn a split before winning the third game of the series and earning the No. 6 seed for the league tournament.
In St. Louis, Davidson dispatched of VCU, which had a similar backs-against-the-wall run to the Super Regionals in 2015, by winning twice in the A-10 title round to earn its first trip to the NCAAs.
On Friday, Brett Centracchio ripped a Bukauskas fastball off the wall in center for an RBI double before Cam Johnson (2 for 5, 3 RBI) plated two with a single to right as the Wildcats took a 3-0 lead in the top of the second.
The Wildcats then added on, scoring a run in the third on a throwing error, two more in the fourth on a bases-loaded walk and a balk after the first two batters of the inning were retired and two more in the fifth on a Johnson single and a Will Robertson (2 for 4, 2 R) sacrifice fly.
“The key in a game like that to me is to put some numbers up there,” Cooke said. “We were able to put a crooked number up there and create a little bit of confidence.”
Durin O’Linger, Davidson’s pitching hero who piled up 236 pitches and chewed innings in the A-10 tourney, minimized his pitch count early and put up zeroes until the sixth. The Tar Heels (47-13) got to him in the seventh when Logan Warmoth hit a two-run homer.
Cooke summoned Alan Berry, who closed the final three innings with one hit and one run.
“We have to get nine outs,” Cooke said he was thinking with his team up 8-3 when he pulled O’Linger after 94 pitches. “If we can’t do that, we don’t deserve to win the game.”
Davidson and North Carolina meet just about every year during the regular season. The teams are so familiar with each other that Cooke jokingly asked Tar Heels coach Mike Fox “You want me to do this?” at the pre-Regional rules meeting to go over ground rules and the like at UNC’s home field.
In early May, the Wildcats led the Tar Heels 6-3 in the ninth before falling 7-6 in extra innings. The year before, Davidson beat Carolina 12-11.
That familiarity may have benefited the underdog.
“To me, personally, no, because I know what they are historically,” Cooke said. “But I think it does to our players.”
Davidson advances to meet No. 2 Florida Gulf Coast, a winner over Michigan, Saturday night.
Ironically, Cooke and his assistants were supposed to attend the wedding of former player David Daniels in Charlotte. Instead, they’ll be on the field while many of the former players wearing Wildcats jerseys in attendance Friday are celebrating the marriage of one of their teammates. The alums surely will be sneaking peeks at the reception.
After all, it’s magic.