If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.

At least, that’s the way it worked out for North Carolina in what was easily the most competitive of the NCAA’s 16 baseball regionals this weekend.

It was such an intense roller coaster ride that 3 full games of head-to-head competition between the No. 4 overall Tar Heels and the defending national champion Tigers weren’t enough to decide which team would continue on the road to Omaha and which would head home.

The only downer is that after 27 innings of well-played, back-and-forth baseball, it was a miscue that finally left the door open for a resolution.

With 2 out and nobody on in the top of the 10th – yes, UNC was the visiting team in its home stadium – LSU right fielder Jake Brown misplayed a fly ball by Johnny Castagnozzi into a 2-base error.

Two batters later, Alex Madera made up for failing to get a bunt down an inning earlier by lacing an RBI single to right to give the Tar Heels a 4-3 win and their 2nd trip to the super regional round in 4 seasons under coach Scott Forbes.

UNC will play West Virginia, the surprise winner of the Tucson Regional, in a best-of-3 series to determine which will advance to the College World Series.

While the upcoming showdown with the Mountaineers will be any kind of gimme, it’s hard to imagine the Tar Heels having to work any harder to get through that series than they did to outlast LSU over the past 3 days.

The Tigers might not have Paul Skenes, the No.1 overall MLB draft pick who helped lead them to the 2023 national title, but they still have plenty of capable arms to go along with some of the most dangerous power hitters in college baseball.

And they had UNC squarely on the ropes after dropping the 1st of their 3 meetings 6-2 on Saturday. LSU bounced back with an 8-4 triumph on Sunday and led from the 3rd inning on in Monday’s winner-take-all finale.

But just as they did on the regional’s wild opening night, the Tar Heels saved themselves with a little 9th inning magic.

Okay, so it wasn’t as dramatic as scoring 6 times in their final at bat, punctuated by a walkoff grand slam, as they did on Friday against Long Island. Still, scoring a run in the ninth to tie on a bloop single by No. 9 hitter Colby Wilkerson off LSU ace Gage Jump, then beating him with a run in the 10th is arguably a much more impressive feat.

In a way, it was a fitting ending.

It was the Tigers, you’ll remember, that broke the hearts of a North Carolina-based ACC team last year in Omaha when Tommy “Tanks” White – who also has an Old North State ACC connection – hit a game-winning extra inning home run to beat Wake Forest and advance to the CWS championship series.

Even though the stage wasn’t quite as big or the conclusion nearly as SportsCenter Top 10-worthy, getting knocked out of the tournament by an ACC team in extra innings sure feels like karma catching up with the defending champs.

It also helped earn the ACC some badly needed bragging rights over a conference that has dominated the conversation in college sports over the past few years. Both on and off the playing field.

The SEC likes to say that “it just means more.”

But this year, as far as representation in baseball’s super regionals is concerned, the ACC is on an equal plane with its more glorified rival.

Clemson, the No. 6 overall seed, No. 8 Florida State, No. 10 NC State and No. 12 Virginia all held serve in straight sets in the regionals they hosted prior to Monday, as did top overall seed Tennessee, No. 2 Kentucky, No. 3 Texas A&M and No. 7 Georgia from the SEC.

With Florida surprising Oklahoma State earlier in the day, it was up to UNC to even things up again.

At least at face value.

Because the ACC had 4 fewer teams in the field and beat SEC opponents in 3 of 4 head-to-head regional finals thanks to the Tar Heels’ victory, the league and its supporters can be excused for partaking in at least a little chest-banging.

Without declaring victory. At least not yet.

NC State and Georgia will square off in one super regional this week in Athens while Clemson faces Florida in another at home. And there are bound to be multiple teams from both conferences in Omaha.

To be the champion, you have to be the champion. And there are still battles to be fought and won.

But with UNC doing its part on Monday, the ACC is off to a good start.