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For the Tar Heels, nothing merciful about this ending

North Carolina had been forced to watch these celebrations before, the visiting team dogpiling in front of the mound in a quiet Boshamer Stadium, if not very often. St. John’s did it in 2012 after upsetting the Tar Heels in an NCAA regional.

But never with a trip to the College World Series imminently on the line. And never like this. It wasn’t merely the game-ending spectacle of it. There was no mercy in the finality. The Tar Heels agonized for eight innings and almost three hours knowing it was coming, with almost no way to stop it.

That made it different, not merely the fact of North Carolina losing an NCAA super regional at home for the first time, but the prolonged and grim march to the inevitable 14-7 finish.

Prolonged and grim would be an apt description for the top of the first inning, albeit selling the catastrophe a bit short. The Tar Heels needed four different pitchers just to get out of the inning, and it started poorly and somehow managed to get worse.

Typically reliable reliever Joey Lancelotti got the start despite his shaky appearance Saturday, when he gave up a double and a walk to the only hitters he faced, part of the Tigers’ nine-run rally in the eighth and ninth innings. Things did not get better for Lancelotti on Monday. He walked the first four Auburn hitters on 20 pitches before exiting.

“That’s the guy we want on the mound,” North Carolina first baseman Michael Busch said. “He just didn’t have it today.”

Connor Ollio got two outs but gave up three runs and Hansen Butler gave up six runs – only three earned, thanks to an Ashton McGee error that extended the inning – before Will Sandy came in and finally settled things down.

Forty-nine minutes, 17 hitters, 13 runs, nine hits, 65 pitches, five walks, one home run, one error and one replay review later, the Tar Heels finally staggered into the bottom of the first.

“It was,” Busch said, “a long inning.”

The Tar Heels would get five scoreless innings out of Sandy, too late to make a difference, but worth an ovation nonetheless on a day there was precious little else to cheer. (McGee’s three-run home run in the fourth and Aaron Sabato’s home runs in the seventh and ninth were about it.)

There was a sense Monday morning that the Tar Heels would find a way to get it done despite the lack of a regular third starter, because not only had they always at home in this situation, but this team had a distinct whiff of destiny to it, storming through the ACC tournament and the regional it hosted, bouncing back from Saturday’s bullpen implosion to grind out a 2-0 win on Sunday and force this third game.

That sense didn’t last long.

“I’m certainly disappointed for our players, just how valiantly they fought all season to put us in this game,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “It’s hard to get this close and not be able to get there.”

Four days ago, East Carolina, Duke and North Carolina all believed they had a realistic shot of getting to Omaha, only to be sequentially disabused of those notions long before their final at-bats.

The Pirates spun their wheels at Louisville, getting swept by a combined 26-1 score. The Blue Devils used up all their runs in the opener at Vanderbilt, winning 18-5 before getting no-hit on Saturday and sent home Sunday. And North Carolina spent the final eight innings Monday trying in vain to fend off the inevitable.

In the space of three months, Auburn ended North Carolina’s basketball and baseball seasons. Fair warning: The Tar Heels open the 2020 football season against the Tigers in Atlanta.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.