The home runs dried up significantly Sunday night for the Tennessee Volunteers.
The pitching didn't.
Starter Will Heflin and reliever Sean Hunley combined on a five-hitter as an offensive-minded Knoxville Regional ended with Tennessee blanketing Liberty 3-1 to advance to its first NCAA baseball tournament super regional since 2005. It was the first time this season that Hunley had taken the ball after Heflin, Vols coach Tony Vitello said.
"Those guys are thicker than thieves and are very close, and you just felt like one guy wasn't going to let the other one down," Vitello said afterward on a Zoom call. "Will mistakenly felt like he let us down in the SEC championship game last weekend when in reality he was phenomenal for us then, and he was just as outstanding tonight.
"He's been here through the thick and thin of the program and has seen it through, so it was a special deal."
Tennessee improved to 48-16 by sweeping the regional and will host the Eugene Regional winner in a super regional next weekend. LSU and Oregon were playing late Sunday night in Eugene, with the host Ducks needing one win to advance and the Tigers needing a victory to force a deciding game Monday.
Heflin worked into the sixth inning and racked up eight strikeouts while allowing four hits and one walk. Will Wagner's double to the right-field wall in the sixth helped result in Liberty's lone run and in Heflin turning things over to Hunley, who tallied five strikeouts while allowing one hit and one walk in recording his eighth save.
Liberty advanced to the regional championship by plastering Duke 15-4 Sunday afternoon.
"I was impressed with Tennessee and the way in which they pitched the baseball," Flames coach Scott Jackson said. "That was two different looks. 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."
Said Heflin: "Today was probably the best as far as my slider location all year. I leaned on that heavily and was able to keep that away from lefties pretty much the entire game. Some of their better hitters are left-handed, and to keep them at bay for a little while was good. To go out there and wrap this thing up was a pretty sweet feeling."
Tennessee took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the third, when Max Ferguson's two-out double to left field was followed by Jake Rucker's RBI single to right. The Vols extended their advantage to 3-0 in the fifth, when Ferguson was hit by a pitch and Drew Gilbert launched a two-run home run to right-center field.
The Vols hit nine total homers in their first two Knoxville Regional games, but Gilbert accounted for their only one Sunday.
Gilbert, Tennessee's center fielder who had the dramatic grand slam in Friday night's 9-8 escape of Wright State, was named MVP of the regional and was joined on the all-tournament team by Vols catcher Connor Pavalony, first baseman Luc Lipcius, shortstop Liam Spence and pitcher Camden Sewell, the former Cleveland High School standout who also made the Southeastern Conference's all-tournament team.
A crowd of 3,941 witnessed Tennessee's first advancement to a super regional in 16 years.
"I'm happy for our guys and for our fan base," Vitello said. "They certainly deserved the assist — a John Stockton effort out of them, if you will."