After opening NCAA baseball tournament play Friday night with a victory in their final at-bat against Wright State, the Tennessee Volunteers used their first at-bat Saturday night to set the tone for a 9-3 whipping of Liberty in the winner's bracket game of the Knoxville Regional.
Tennessee was the visiting team Saturday before a crowd of 4,006 inside Lindsey Nelson Stadium, and Liam Spence put the Vols ahead to stay with a leadoff home run to right field. Luc Lipcius homered to right in the second inning, and when Spence came to the plate later in the second, his three-run blast to right-center made it 5-0.
The Vols got solo homers from Drew Gilbert and Lipcius in the third to provide a seven-run cushion that never came close to existing during Friday's 9-8 triumph on Gilbert's grand slam with one out in the ninth.
"Today was a great team win," Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said afterward on a Zoom call. "People expected great things from this regional, and it hasn't disappointed in excitement. Part of that has been our guys feeding off our crowd.
"They gave us juice last night, and it carried over into tonight."
The Vols have racked up nine homers during their first two NCAA tournament tilts.
"We're grinding out at-bats one through nine and making these pitchers work," Spence said. "We're trying to make pitchers throw as many pitches as they can to where they can leave some over the plate."
Tennessee (47-16), the top seed in the Knoxville Regional and the third overall seed in the 64-team NCAA field after finishing runner-up to No. 1 Arkansas at the Southeastern Conference tournament, has moved within one win of reaching the NCAA's super regional round.
The Vols will play the winner of Sunday's 2 p.m. contest between Duke (33-21) and Liberty (40-15). The game between Tennessee and the Duke-Liberty winner is set for 6, with Will Heflin the potential starting pitcher for the Vols.
"As nice as tonight's win was, we're smack dab in the middle of a tournament," Vitello said. "We're all a little bitter that we didn't win the last one we were in, and we want to do whatever we've got to do to win this one."
Blade Tidwell had a scoreless game going until the sixth inning, when Tennessee's defense unraveled and allowed the Flames to pull within 7-3. Tennessee's offense went silent after the third until Pete Derkay's two-run single to right in the eighth made it 9-3.
Liberty coach Scott Jackson and pitching coach Matt Williams were ejected during the game by home plate umpire Angel Campos.