**By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth**
CHARLOTTE — There were a few highlights during South Carolina's trip to Charlotte Tuesday night.
National championship coach Dawn Staley threw out the first pitch, the net from the Final Four in Dallas still hanging around her neck.
Second baseman LT Tolbert remained hot, slugging a two-run home run, his third in four games.
And closer Tyler Johnson finally returned, pitching a clean eighth inning in his first appearance in 20 games due to a sore arm.
But that was the extent of the highlights as the Gamecocks got blown out by No. 4 North Carolina, falling 20-5 at BB&T Park in Charlotte. The Tar Heels pounded out 14 hits and took advantage of 10 walks to rout South Carolina for the second straight year.
The Gamecocks (21-11) quickly had nightmares of 2016, when North Carolina won 15-0 in Charlotte. North Carolina scored four runs in the first, two in the second and six in the fourth to build a 12-3 lead after four innings.
The game started on an ominous note as Tolbert booted a ground ball by North Carolina leadoff hitter Brian Miller, his first error of the season. Starting pitcher Cody Morris didn't make it out of the first inning, giving up four runs (three earned) on four hits. Colby Lee gave up two more runs on two hits in the second.
Left-hander John Parke relieved Lee and got out of the inning and pitched a clean third, retiring five straight batters. But he ran into trouble in the fourth as North Carolina scored six runs on four hits and three walks by three different Gamecock pitchers.
South Carolina, which banged out 13 hits, was able to scratch out five runs, but could not put together a big inning. They scored two in the second on Tolbert's two-run homer. Jacob Olson knocked in a run in the third, Tolbert had an RBI single in the fifth and Jonah Bride drove in a run with a double in the eighth.
But South Carolina could not find a pitcher who could get the Tar Heels out. Saving its starters for the weekend, South Carolina used 10 pitchers, including key relievers Reed Scott, Josh Reagan and Johnson.
The Gamecocks completely imploded in the seventh, giving up seven runs on two hits, seven walks and a hit batter. Sawyer Bridges, Brandon Murray and Taylor Haswell combined to walk or hit eight straight batters.
"The name of the game is pitching, pitching and defense, and we fell short in the pitching department tonight," head coach Chad Holbrook said. "Disappointing, obviously."
Holbrook had to bring in Reagan to get out of the seventh inning before Johnson pitched a 1-2-3 ninth, getting a groundout, a flyout and a strikeout. His fastball was in the low-90s and touched 94 on at least one pitch, according to the BB&T Park scoreboard.
That was encouraging for a team that has struggled to close out games lately.
"It was good to see Tyler get back out there and throw the way we know he can throw," said Holbrook, who has been using Reagan to close games in Johnson's absence. "If anything came good out of that game … it was seeing him pitch again. That bodes well for him being ready and available for the weekend, as long as he doesn’t feel sore tomorrow or the next day."
If healthy, Johnson will resume his normal closer's role. He had four saves, a 2.70 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 6.2 innings before leaving a Clemson game with a sore arm in early March.
"Hopefully, that will eliminate some of those late-game losses we have had in conference play and some of the games that we had earlier," Holbrook said.
Perhaps one other good thing came out of the embarrassing loss to North Carolina. The Gamecocks get a chance to put the loss behind them and play another big SEC series at home this weekend against Mississippi.
"We will get on the bus and regroup," Holbrook said. "Practice hard tomorrow, practice hard Thursday and get ready for a hot Mississippi State team.”