CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Conor Davis kicked up the Carolina dirt, barreling around third as Will Holland raced behind him.
They scored and turned, and frantically shouted Eduoard Julien into a slide.
He went down, the North Carolina throw fell wide, he coasted over home and the Tigers roared together in celebration.
Rankin Woley’s three-run RBI double in the top of the eighth scored all three runners to complete Auburn’s comeback, and in one moment the Tigers broke open the game on the way to beating North Carolina 11-7 on Saturday to win Game 1 of the Super Regional here, and putting Auburn one win away from the College World Series.
Auburn trailed 5-2 with one out down in the eighth inning before that big swing. Woley sent his shot off the top of the fence in left center, clearing the bases in a game-changing flash in Boshamer Stadium to put Auburn up 7-5.
Auburn scored four more in the top of the ninth to put it away. North Carolina scored two in the bottom of the ninth to give the game its final score.
Auburn can win the series in Game 2, set for 10:30 a.m. CT Sunday, and punch its ticket to Omaha, Neb.
“There’s no panic in our team,” Davis said after the big charge back and win.
“We believe we can hang into every game,” he added.
The Tigers rolled up five runs in the eighth in that game-winning rally, as a pocket of fans in burnt orange in Carolina country jumped to their feet.
Davis doubled to score Judd Ward and get that push going, after Auburn cracked North Carolina ace Tyler Baum and started digging into the Tar Heels bullpen. Ryan Bliss scored from third on a wild pitch. Then after two walks, Woley helped send North Carolina to its first loss in eight games.
North Carolina fell to 45-18, the nation’s No. 14 seed losing for the first time in the postseason after sweeping the ACC Tournament and its host regional last weekend.
Auburn jumped to 37-25, its Cinderella run now nine innings from Omaha. Its late-inning rally called back to Auburn’s 6-5 comeback win over host Georgia Tech in the Atlanta Regional last weekend.
“We’ve been through this before,” Auburn head coach Butch Thompson said after Saturday’s win. “I thought experience just helped us get to the finish line today.
“We need to stay focused on how good our opponent is here,” he added, looking ahead to Game 2.
Auburn fell behind 3-0 early Saturday after the first inning, as starting pitcher Jack Owen and the Tigers defense struggled to settle in on the big stage, and on soaked dirt after a rainy morning in Chapel Hill.
Steven Williams continued his hot-hitting postseason with a two-run homer in the top of the fifth that made it 3-2, but North Carolina got those runs back over the next few innings, while Baum — the 66th overall pick in the MLB Draft — kept the Tigers bats in check until he left the mound to a standing ovation from North Carolina fans in the seventh.
It was every bit of a battle already to that point. Baum struck out Holland with Davis at third in the top of the fourth — a third-round MLB pick matching a fifth-round MLB pick in a big moment to preserve North Carolina’s 3-0 early lead.
But Williams sent his shot to right in the fifth to make it a one-run game, then North Carolina’s solo runs in the fifth and seventh only set the stage for Auburn’s big march in the eighth fueled by Woley’s go-ahead double.
“It was down. That’s where I like it. I got a bat to it, and — you know — a pretty fun swing,” Woley put it simply.
A three-run bomb by Julien in the top of the ninth capped a four-run rally in that inning that all but ended it.
Woley’s double in the eighth was the game-changer, Davis said.
“It puts us from grinding back into the game to standing out in front and just playing with ease,” Davis said.
“I think it took the mentality from grinding back to playing with the lead and staying focused and pushing forward instead of just settling right there,” he added.
North Carolina actually got the tying run in the batter’s box in the bottom of the ninth after two runs scored and the Tar Heels loaded the bases as Greenhill worked with a comfortable lead, but he forced a fly out to end a battle in front of North Carolina’s rocking home fans.
“We could feel them,” Thompson said. “We could even hear our folks that come a long way — but great home crowd and we’ve got to come in here and keep playing good baseball to have a chance.”
North Carolina burned through six pitchers, with five coming in after Baum completed an ace’s work going into the seventh inning.
Owen settled down after the first inning and went on to pitch five complete frames. Elliott Anderson came on for him at the start of the sixth and pitched two before Greenhill, the go-to closer, came up in the bottom of the eighth after the Tigers took the lead.
Auburn’s projected Game 2 starter Bailey Horn, the redshirt sophomore who held Georgia Tech scoreless for six innings in a win last weekend, was under the weather Saturday, Thompson said, and did not make the trip to the stadium. Freshman pitcher Richard Fitts, who shined last weekend too, warmed up during the course of Saturday’s game but did not enter and will be available.
The weekend’s best-of-three winner is set to stand among the eight teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament heading to the College World Series in Omaha next week.
If North Carolina wins Sunday, it will force a Game 3 on Monday set for noon CT.