Thornton and Virginia Tech's Sean Keselica matched each other pitch for pitch through five innings as neither offense was able to muster much. The Hokies (18-23-1, 7-15 ACC) had the best opportunity of the stretch in the fifth, when they put runners on second and third with nobody out. But Thornton was at his best after Logan Bible's double, striking out a pair before Saige Jenco fouled out to third to end the threat.
But the visitors would break through in the sixth after Thornton showed some uncharacteristic wildness. Mark Zagunis reached on a one-out single and advanced to third on a stolen base and an error. After hitting Brendon Hayden to put two on, Thornton got ahead of Keselica 0-2 before walking him to load the bases. Tech got its first run when a suicide squeeze turned into a bunt single for Wernicki and made it 2-0 on Bible's RBI single.
Thornton and the Tar Heels were able to limit the damage, however, when Landon Lassiter started a 5-2-3 double play on Ricky Surum's sharp grounder.
That would prove to be a key moment, as the Tar Heels (25-18, 11-11 ACC) immediately tied it in the bottom of the sixth. Carolina loaded the bases on a pair of bunt singles and a walk before Lassiter struck out for the first out of the frame. Bolt then grounded to second for a force out, but Surum's throw got away from Hayden at first, allowing Russell and Pate to score the tying runs.
It was deja vu in the eighth when the Hokies intentionally walked Lassiter to load the bases for Bolt. Once again the sophomore switch-hitter grounded to second, and again the throw from Surum missed its mark, this time pulling Hayden off the bag to allow Pate to score from third.
Meanwhile, Kelley had sailed through the seventh and eighth, retiring the first seven batters he faced until Bible's one-out single in the ninth. With the tying run aboard, Carolina called on Reilly Hovis, and the sophomore stopper got Surum to ground out before striking out Miguel Ceballos to end it.
It was the first win of the year for Kelley, who has allowed just two runs in 15.1 innings in the month of April. Thornton surrendered two runs on six hits in 6.0 innings and took a no-decision.
Keselica (3-3) was the hard-luck loser for Virginia Tech, as the lefty allowed just four hits and struck out five in a complete-game loss. Bible led the way offensively for the Hokies with three hits, while Wernicki added a pair.
Russell had two of Carolina's four hits, including his 16th double of the year. The junior shortstop is now batting .349 on the year and .416 in ACC play.
Wood Myers left the game after being hit in the hand by a pitch in the first inning. The freshman second baseman suffered a non-displaced fracture of the fifth metacarpal in his right hand and is expected to miss 2-4 weeks.
Game two of the three-game Coastal Division series is set for Saturday night at 6. Benton Moss will take the ball for Carolina against Tech's Brad Markey. UNC will honor the 1964 ACC Championship team as well as the 1989 College World Series squad during Saturday's contest.