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Connor Hults halts North Carolina comeback bid to help Seminoles advance with 9-5 win at CWS

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Connor Hults felt a whole lot better walking off the mound at the end of the game Tuesday than he did three days earlier.

Hults pitched 4 1/3 innings of shutout relief to thwart North Carolina's comeback bid, and Jaxson West and Max Williams hit back-to-back homers in the ninth for insurance as Florida State beat the Tar Heels 9-5 in a College World Series elimination game.

The Seminoles (49-16) will play No. 1 national seed Tennessee on Wednesday afternoon. They would have to beat the Volunteers then and again Thursday to reach the finals for the first time since 1999.

“Can't wait,” Seminoles coach Link Jarrett said.

FSU took a three-run lead into the bottom of the ninth against Tennessee in its CWS opener last Saturday. A check-swing call that didn't go the Seminoles' way — it would have ended the game if it had — and the single by Dylan Dreiling that followed produced a 12-11 walk-off win for the Volunteers.

Hults was the guy who threw the pitch to Dreiling, the only batter he faced.

“Hults' response — four-plus innings? Amazing,” Jarrett said.

The junior left-hander relied on a sharp fastball and mixed it effectively with off-speed pitches, something he had spoken about with pitching coach Micah Posey.

“Being able to locate the fastball in any count was new to my game,” Hults said. “I haven’t done it in a few weeks. It’s there. But me and coach Posey had been talking about mixing some more fastball and changeups to start getting hitters off the curveball. I was able to locate some fastballs and expand on my off-speed when needed, and that worked out in our favor.”

When he finished the eighth, he had no doubt in his mind he would go back out for the ninth, and he let Jarrett know it.

“Don't even think about it,” Hults told Jarrett, according to the coach. “There were some other words mixed in there. I'm so happy for him. It's hard to walk off that field the way it went (Saturday) night. You guys all saw it and know it. And he really answered.”

The Tar Heels (48-16) lost consecutive games for the first time since mid-April and went 1-2 in their first CWS since 2018.

“We had one of the best teams in the country and our goal was to win this whole thing,” the Tar Heels’ Casey Cook said. “The postseason, we didn’t hit how we necessarily wanted to. We didn’t get what we wanted, but we have zero regrets. We gave everything we had.”

Though FSU and North Carolina are both from the Atlantic Coast Conference, this was their first meeting since the Tar Heels swept a three-game series to end the 2022 regular season.

Florida State led 3-1 after chasing both Aidan Haugh (4-3) and Matthew Matthijs in the third inning. The Tar Heels called on Dalton Pence, who extended his NCAA Tournament shutout innings streak to 14 1/3 innings before five singles in six at-bats led to four runs in the fifth inning, giving the Seminoles a 7-1 lead.

North Carolina scored four runs in the bottom half. With two runners on, Vance Honeycutt greeted Conner Whittaker with his fourth homer in five games, and Jackson Van De Brake followed with an RBI single to make it a two-run game.

“That's how the team has been all year — no quit,” Honeycutt said. “That's a credit to how we're trained, how we're coached and the character of the guys in the locker room.”

Hults (3-1) got the last out of the inning and retired 12 of 15 batters in his longest outing of the season. He never was in trouble. Honeycutt singled leading off the seventh, but was erased in a rundown between first and second. After Van De Brake doubled in the eighth, Hults coaxed two groundouts. He walked Alex Madera to start the ninth, but sandwiched a strikeout between two groundouts to end the game.

West, the No. 9 batter for FSU, had a career-high four hits in five at-bats. His homer was his second in four games and just his third of the season.

Williams hit his fifth homer in eight NCAA Tournament games and has 14 for the season.

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AP college sports: https://apnews.com/hub/college-sports

Eric Olson, The Associated Press