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Bacot, Withers help No. 1 seed North Carolina beat No. 16 seed Wagner in March Madness

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Elliot Cadeau saw Jae'Lyn Withers running the court and sent a lob his way in transition. Withers vaulted skyward to grab the ball with two hands and stuff it through for North Carolina.

And he played with the kind of zip — in his hometown and in his first NCAA Tournament game — that the West Region's No. 1 seed will need to help Armando Bacot inside and keep the Tar Heels advancing.

Bacot had 20 points and 15 rebounds and Withers turned in a solid all-around performance, sending UNC to a 90-62 victory over 16th-seeded Wagner in Thursday's first round.

Withers, a 6-foot-9 transfer from Louisville, had a season-high 16 points and matched his best rebounding work with 10 boards for the region's headliner. That helped the Tar Heels (28-7) finish the game shooting 55% from the field against a short-handed upstart aiming to pull off only the third opening-round takedown of a 1-seed in March Madness history.

“I think he did set the tone,” UNC coach Hubert Davis said, adding: “J-Wit, his energy and effort on both ends of the floor really ignited us and got us the lead going into halftime. He came off the bench and his production was real.”

UNC played with the backing of a blue-clad crowd about 2 1/2 hours from its Chapel Hill campus. And the Tar Heels will have that again for the next step: a marquee matchup with Michigan State and Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo on Saturday.

Withers had scored in double figures only three times all year, the last time coming against his former Louisville program on Jan. 17.

"(Davis) typically challenges us before the game and sometimes at half, saying, ‘It doesn’t need to be only an Armando Bacot rebounding game or a Harrison Ingram rebounding game,’” Withers said.

Melvin Council Jr. and Julian Brown each scored 18 points for the Seahawks (17-16), who won their first-ever NCAA game by holding off Howard in the First Four on Tuesday night. Wagner shot 39.7% for the game.

“I was happy for them to be able to compete in this, and I was really proud the way they competed,” Seahawks coach Donald Copeland said. “Obviously what we’ve gone through all year isn’t ideal, but we expected to play well. We expected to win the game. Obviously we didn’t. But I’m glad the way we played.”

UNC had the clear edge inside against a team with only seven available scholarship players and only one — 6-foot-9, 255-pound Keyontae Lewis — offering any notable size. By halftime, the 6-10 Bacot had a double-double after getting multiple deep-block touches while the 6-9 Withers showed plenty of energy in the paint and scoring 10 first-half points.

The Tar Heels gradually stretched that lead out after the break. That included Davis and Ingram hitting back-to-back 3-pointers, followed shortly by the Withers' alley-oop dunk for a 70-50 lead with 8:33 left.

BIG PICTURE

Wagner: The Seahawks' story was an impressive show of resilience for a team that was picked to finish fifth in the Northeast Conference when they had a full roster. But Copeland found himself losing players to injuries ever since, so much so that the team hadn't had a full-go practice since Dec. 27 and had used assistant coaches to help run drills. They won the NEC Tournament title to secure the program's second-ever trip to March Madness, the other coming 21 years ago.

UNC: The Tar Heels got another comfortable setting to start the tournament. The Tar Heels improved to 35-2 in NCAA games in their home state, including 13-1 here in the state's largest city. Notably, the lone loss came in their last tournament game here: a second-round loss as a 2-seed to Texas A&M.

NOTEWORTHY

Bacot marked his sixth straight NCAA game with at least 15 rebounds going back to 2022. He broke a tie with Phil Ford for second on the program's scoring list (2,310), trailing only Atlantic Coast Conference career scoring leader Tyler Hansbrough (2,872). ... RJ Davis, named this week as a first-team All-American by The Associated Press, had 17 of his 22 points after halftime for the Tar Heels. He also passed Lennie Rosenbluth for fifth on the school's scoring list (2,252). ... Wagner shot 32.4% in the first half to trail by 40-28 and never got the deficit to single digits again. ... The Seahawks had just one turnover at halftime and kept the transition-seeking Tar Heels without a fast-break point in the opening 20 minutes.

UP NEXT

The Tar Heels will get another matchup with the Izzo's Spartans, who have lost all four meetings with UNC in the NCAA Tournament — including in the 2005 Final Four and 2009 title game.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness