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Tennessee's pitching stymies Liberty in Knoxville Regional final
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NCAA Tournament Knoxville Regional

Tennessee's pitching stymies Liberty in Knoxville Regional final

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Liberty coach Scott Jackson and Tennessee coach Tony Vitello discuss the Volunteers' 3-1 win over the Flames in the Knoxville Regional final Sunday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

Liberty opened its Sunday inside Lindsey Nelson Stadium by eradicating Duke from the Knoxville Regional. The Flames feasted on a bevy of pitches in the strike zone and didn’t miss on many opportunities to score runs.

It was a different story Sunday evening in the regional final as Tennessee’s two-headed pitching attack never allowed Liberty to get any momentum going at the plate.

Will Heflin and Sean Hunley combined to limit Liberty to five hits, Drew Gilbert’s two-run homer in the fifth was the difference, and the No. 3 national seed Volunteers edged the Flames 3-1 to win the Knoxville Regional and advance to their first super regional since 2005.

“I was impressed with Tennessee and the way they pitched the baseball. I thought that was two different looks,” Liberty coach Scott Jackson said. “I thought Will Heflin did an outstanding job, especially against our left-handed hitters, and Sean Hunley has been good for them all year. We didn’t have many opportunities, and that’s a credit to their pitchers.”

The Flames (41-16) advanced to a regional final for the second time in program history, joining the 2013 team that made it to the Columbia Regional final.

That 2013 was blown out by South Carolina in the winners’ bracket round and then made the Gamecocks sweat in a regional final that wasn’t decided until the final out.

Sunday, the Volunteers (48-16) were held to less than nine runs for the first time in this regional, and they had to rely on the stout pitching of Heflin (3-3) and Hunley to ensure the Flames never capitalized on the three times they had runners in scoring position.

“Today was probably the best that my slider location was all year, and I leaned on that heavily,” said Heflin, who allowed one earned run on four hits, walked one and struck out eight in 5 1/3 innings.

Hunley recorded his eighth save by pitching 3 2/3 scoreless innings with five strikeouts.

“When our pitching staff can keep a team like Tennessee to three runs, you want to be able to scratch a couple more,” Liberty third baseman Trey McDyre said. The Flames fell to UT 9-3 in Saturday’s winners’ bracket contest. “They kept us off-balance all night, which is a credit to them just being able to get outs when they needed to.”

The Flames scratched 15 runs across in an 11-run triumph over Duke in Sunday afternoon’s elimination game. The 15 runs were the most scored by the program in an NCAA Tournament game.

Liberty scored eight times in the first inning against three different pitchers, and the overwhelming advantage allowed Mason Meyer to stay on the mound and craft the first complete game of his career.

Meyer (5-1) allowed 13 hits and only struck out four, but benefited from five double plays turned by his defense.

“It prevented us from stringing together more runs,” Duke coach and Amherst County native Chris Pollard said of the double plays.

Jaylen Guy’s grand slam highlighted the eight-run first inning, and the centerfielder produced a highlight-reel catch in the seventh inning when he robbed Chad Knight of a home run.

McDyre and Logan Mathieu both hit solo home runs.

Liberty hit 9 for 22 with runners on base, went 6 for 16 with runners in scoring position and recorded seven two-out RBIs against the Blue Devils (33-22).

“Those guys played great, and they deserve to be playing [against Tennessee],” Pollard said of Liberty.

The Flames’ hitting cooled off tremendously Sunday evening against the Volunteers.

Liberty did not record a hit in six chances with runners in scoring position — the lone run came when McDyre reached on a fielder’s choice and Aaron Anderson beat the throw to the plate — and the Flames left two runners on in the first, third and sixth innings.

“I thought there were more pitches to hit earlier this afternoon. That’s not taking anything away from our players,” Jackson said, “but I thought tonight when we had opportunities, they made big pitches. They made some really big pitches in spots.”

Gilbert, the regional’s most outstanding player, hit a two-out, two-run homer in the fifth inning to put the Volunteers ahead 3-0 and spoil what was a solid outing for Fraser Ellard.

“‘Big Game Drew’ gave us the lead there,” Heflin said.

Ellard, who became the Flames’ closer during the season, was making his first start of the campaign and allowed three earned runs on six hits and struck out four in five innings.

Mason Fluharty and David Erickson combined to throw three scoreless innings to keep the deficit at one run.

“I thought we competed about as well as we could in this environment, especially on the mound,” Jackson said. “I enjoyed watching our players compete at this level and on this stage.”

Liberty second baseman Will Wagner went 3 for 4 with a double against UT. Anderson and Jake Wilson accounted for the Flames’ other two hits in the regional final.

McDyre, Gray Betts, Brady Gulakowski and Meyer were named to the all-regional team.

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Liberty athletics enjoyed one of its most successful seasons to date in 2020-21. The football program finished the season ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in program history. The men’s basketball program qualified for the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season, and was joined this season in NCAA Tournament play by baseball, softball, women’s soccer, men’s tennis, men’s golf and women’s cross country.

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