UNC inching closer to elusive goal

OMAHA, Neb. -- Elliott Avent wandered into the bar at the Hilton downtown around 11 a.m. Thursday, searching for ways to kill time before the biggest game he's ever coached.

He stretched out in a lounge chair, looking sharp in a white NC State polo and dark slacks. In between sips of coffee, he shared old stories about his baseball life with a couple of friends. His father, Jack, strolled in, bracing himself with a wooden cane.

"Come on, sit down, Pops," Avent said, slapping a chair next to him. His father had been pacing the hotel lobby tile throughout the day, doing circles around the tables and chairs. Like most people, he had no idea what to do from now until first pitch. No matter the age, fathers get antsy on big days for their sons.

As Avent's laughs filtered through the bar, you never would have known the biggest decision on his biggest day as a coach was churning inside him.

After announcing Wednesday that freshman pitcher Brad Stone would start against North Carolina in an elimination game at the College World Series, he went to bed. He woke up Thursday doubting everything.

Internal voices and external pressures hounded him. They pleaded for ace Carlos Rodon on three days' rest. Rodon had dominated UNC on Sunday, and if Avent was going to use him in relief, why not start him?

That logic battered Avent and finally broke him in the afternoon hours. He went to Rodon and said, "Carlos, honestly, how do you feel?"

"I feel great," Rodon said.

As the minutes ticked to first pitch, Avent made his decision, the only decision that's ever truly on the table when facing elimination: If we're going to lose tonight, we're going to lose with our ace on the mound.

They lost.

They lost because North Carolina's hitters squeaked two runs, one earned, out of Rodon in five innings, then busted up NC State's bullpen for five more runs to make it an ugly 7-0 final.

Mostly, though, NC State lost because North Carolina left-hander Hobbs Johnson threw 132 pitches over 8 1/3 shutout innings, allowing only five hits and striking out six. Every one of those 132 pitches was a fastball.

"For pretty much the whole postseason, I've been throwing almost all fastballs," Johnson said. "It's worked outside of one game against South Carolina. Today, I had better command than I had against South Carolina and FAU [in the regional]."

For Johnson, Thursday night was something between retribution and affirmation, making up for what had so far been a poor postseason and confirming what his team has always known to be true: Deep inside that stocky, 5-foot-11 frame, Johnson possesses the talent and toughness to get him through nights like these on stages like this.

Afterward, he sat on a two-seater couch in the corridor underneath TD Ameritrade Park. North Carolina coach Mike Fox took the seat next to him. For 10 minutes, they sat mostly in silence, waiting to be interviewed. Johnson rested both hands on his knees and stared at the floor, dazed and depleted from everything he poured out of himself to beat the Wolfpack. Fox studied a stat sheet, gathering the thoughts he would deliver to the media. Underneath his navy blue windbreaker, he was soaked from nine innings of stress.

"Tonight was all about Hobbs, just an incredible performance," Fox said. "Hobbs has done that against a lot of other teams this year as well. There's some deception, obviously, in his fastball. He hides the ball a little bit. And the key was just good command. He gave us exactly what we needed."

What Johnson gave North Carolina was another day in Omaha, another chance to win it all. The Tar Heels must now beat 2-0 UCLA twice to move to the championship series, with the first shot coming Friday evening. Fox and his staff will wake early Friday. They will spend the majority of the day figuring out how to beat the Bruins, believing they are another step closer to finally winning everything here.

There is nothing left for Rodon and NC State to win this season. They head home now, having pushed the program into a tier it had never known before.

"I know these guys, they're proud," Avent said. "They're extremely proud of their accomplishments. They understood that they represent so many people that played at NC State. I think they understood the torch they carry for so many people and so many fans and how well they're loved in Raleigh."

Rodon wore that pride out of the ballpark with his teammates. He strapped on a backpack and walked out with his guys, quietly laughing and discussing how they're going to celebrate everything that was accomplished. He wasn't the brooding hulk he is on the mound, the man whose emotions can sometimes overcome him. He understood the magnificence and magnitude of this moment for NC State.

This season was the redefinition of college baseball in Raleigh, N.C., and the emergence of another power player in the state's Triangle region. Each day in Omaha, the Wolfpack achieved something new, because until now, there was almost everything left to be achieved.

It had been 45 years since they'd been to the College World Series. Five seasons ago, they hosted a regional on campus for the first time. This year, they hosted their first super regional. Every step now for NC State is a red pen mark through another goal.

With six trips to Omaha in the past eight seasons, North Carolina had been miles ahead of NC State in baseball accomplishment. That gap was closed some in 2013. It could be closed completely in 2014 if the Wolfpack beat the Tar Heels to a title.

That's in play. Next season, NC State will begin as a favorite to return to Omaha, largely because Rodon and shortstop Trea Turner will be back as juniors and two massive cinder blocks at the base of what could be a championship model. The Wolfpack are rapidly approaching the elite vicinity North Carolina currently occupies. They are reaching the place where a championship is the only thing left to pursue.

That's where North Carolina is. It's been there for a few years.

Fox said he doesn't believe a national championship is the only barometer of success for a team, and he's right. If the Tar Heels don't win four more games in Omaha, they will not be a failure. They will be another great team in a long line of them for Fox. Like the Wolfpack, they will be proud.

But there would be a palpable sense of something left unfinished, a Picasso masterpiece with the corners yet to be filled in. That's where Fox has lifted his program. The only goal left to cross off is the ultimate one.

On Thursday, Johnson picked up the ball and carried it another step closer for North Carolina. Yes, this trip is ultimately about collective accomplishment, about finishing the Omaha race. But Fox wanted Johnson to have his night, to cherish it.

As Fox and his pitcher headed for the exits at TD Ameritrade, that's what mattered.

"How 'bout that -- couldn't have happened to a better kid," Fox said, pointing up ahead to Johnson. "Couldn't have happened to a better kid."