With 19 entries in the 64-team field between the ACC and SEC, this NCAA Tournament will inevitably be looked upon as a referendum on the 2 best conferences in college baseball.

But of the 6 potential head-to-head regional showdowns between them, only 3 of them materialized.

And it took dramatic walkoff finishes for all 3 of those to come about.

Ninth inning home runs were the rule of the day in Chapel Hill as both top-seeded North Carolina and No. 2 LSU staged late comebacks to advance into the winner’s bracket of their regional.

The Tigers got 8th-inning homers from Michael Braswell and Jared Jones to tie Wofford before Steven Milan ended with a solo shot of his own in the 9th.

But that was tame compared to what the Tar Heels needed to do to hold up their end of the bargain. After squandering a lead in the top of the 9th, they rallied to score 6 in the bottom of the inning, capped by a game-ending grand slam by 3rd baseman Gavin Gallaher.

A few miles down the road in Raleigh, South Carolina was down to its last strike before extending the game on a 2-run bomb by Cole Messina. The Gamecocks then won it in the 10th on a Will Tippett sacrifice fly to earn a date with host NC State.

The Wolfpack earned a drama-free 9-2 victory against Bryant.

Virginia also made it through the opening round with only a minimum of sweat by riding an early 3-run homer by Henry Godbout and a strong pitching effort from the duo of Joe Savino and Chase Hungate for a 4-2 win against Penn. But it took a 10th-inning homer by Dakota Jordan for Mississippi State to set up a 3rd ACC-SEC showdown.

All 3 games will be played Saturday night.

Top seeds Florida State and Clemson also advanced into the winner’s bracket of their respective regionals, with the Tigers also walking it off against High Point on a 9th-inning single by Tristan Bissetta. Instead of facing SEC opponents Alabama and Vanderbilt, however, the Seminoles will take on Central Florida while the Tigers will face Coastal Carolina.

And a possible rivalry game between Georgia Tech and Georgia was dashed by UNC Wilmington, which put a 9-0 hurting on the Yellow Jackets.

The other 2 ACC teams in the field, Wake Forest and conference tournament champion Duke, were both beaten in their opening-round games. Top overall seed Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Florida were the other SEC winners.

Beyond the final scores, here are a few takeaways from the opening day of NCAA baseball regional play:

Day 1 superlatives

  • UNC’s Gavin Gallaher, 3-of-4, 2 HR, 6 RBI, 3 runs.
  • NC State’s Alec Makarewicz, 4-of-5, 3 2B, 3 RBI, 2 runs.
  • NC State’s Jacob Duden, 3-inning save, 0 runs, 0 hits, 6 strikeouts.
  • Florida State’s Carson Dorsey, 8 innings pitched, 1 earned run, 7 strikeouts.
  • Virginia’s Henry Godbout 3-run HR
  • Virginia’s Chase Hungate, 3.1 innings, 0 runs, 1 hit, 3 strikeouts.

 Expected matchup, unexpected round

Wake Forest will face East Carolina on Saturday with aces Chase Burns and Trey Yesavage on the mound.

Just as everyone expected.

What nobody saw coming is the round in which the game will be played. Instead of battling it out in the winner’s bracket for a spot in the region final, the top 2 seeds will count on their best pitchers to keep their seasons alive after suffering back-to-back opening-game upsets.

Burns, the ACC Pitcher of the Year, and Yesavage will have difficulty matching the performances that helped send the teams into the loser’s bracket.

Evansville freshman Kenton Deverman limited the Pirates to 1 run on 3 hits in 8 innings to lead the Aces to a 4-1 win. That was followed by an even more impressive gem by VCU’s Christian Gordon in a 1-0 win against the Deacons.

Gordon allowed only 2 hits while striking out 13 in 7⅔ shutout innings. In doing so, he and reliever Brian Curley helped extend Wake’s NCAA Tournament scoreless streak to 27 straight innings dating back to last year’s College World Series and push the team ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls to the brink of an early elimination.

The Mayor says goodbye. Maybe.

Barring an upset in the Athens Regional, Friday night’s game against Bryant was the final home start of Sam Highfill’s roller coaster NC State career.

It’s a ride that has seen him outduel Vanderbilt’s Jack Leiter on the mound and get 3 hits off Kumar Rocker as an emergency 1st baseman at the College World Series as a freshmen, miss a season with an arm injury and struggle in his return before finally regaining form this season.

If Saturday’s 9-2 win was in fact the Doak Field at Dail Park farewell for the pitcher Wolfpack fans know as “The Mayor,” Highfill made it a memorable one. After giving up an early home run, the senior right-hander was dominant in allowing only 4 hits over 6 strong innings in front of an electric sellout crowd that showed its appreciation to him as he left the mound.

It was a moment Highfill said he’d have enjoyed more had he not given up back-to-back doubles. But he admitted afterward that it meant a lot to him.

“I was trying to soak it all in,” he said. “Hopefully it’s not the last time here. But you look up and it’s pretty cool.”

What’s more impressive is that, according to coach Elliott Avent, Highfill didn’t have his best stuff.

“I’m really happy for Sam,”: Avent said. “He’s given so much to our program. There’s nobody else I’d want to see out there on a night like tonight.

“On the way over (to the postgame interview area) I told him how well he did in the game. And he said ‘Coach, I didn’t feel great the entire game. He just kind of battled. That’s what Sam does. And he never shows it. He’d be a bad guy to play poker with.”

New tournament, different result

It’s said that momentum in baseball is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher. When it comes to the postseason, there’s even less carryover from 1 tournament to the next.

Duke learned that painful lesson on Friday.

The Blue Devils looked like a juggernaut while outscoring the opposition 43-15 in 4 games on the way to the ACC Tournament championship in Charlotte last week. But it was a totally different story in their NCAA opener against UConn in Norman, Okla.

Chris Pollard’s 2nd-seeded club managed only a single run, on a 1st-inning single by AJ Gracia single – the 3rd batter of the game – in a 4-1 loss to the Huskies. That offensive power outage wasted a strong pitching performance from Andrew Healy and 2 relievers and sent Duke into an elimination game against Oral Roberts.

The good news in a double-elimination tournament is that 1 loss doesn’t knock you out of the tournament. But while the Blue Devils have the pitching depth and bats to bounce back through the loser’s bracket. Good thing that momentum doesn’t carry over from 1 game to the next.

On to Day 2 …