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Mar 20, 2024 6:06 am

No. 1 UNC, back after year’s absence, opens NCAAs vs. Wagner

RJ Davis, tar heels

CHARLOTTE — North Carolina will be anxious to respond to a disappointment when the NCAA Tournament begins.

After all, it’s hardly a situation of despair for the Tar Heels, who hold the No. 1 seed in the West Region as they open tournament play against No. 16 seed Wagner on Thursday afternoon.

“Coach (Hubert) Davis always talks about our response and how we’re going to respond when we get knocked down,” Tar Heels senior guard RJ Davis said. “So going into March Madness, we’re going to have to prepare, come together as a group and fix the mistakes that we made (last week).”

North Carolina’s first NCAA tourney foe will be Wagner (17-15), which needed a 71-68 victory against Howard on Tuesday in a First Four game at Dayton, Ohio, to advance to the round of 64.

The Wagner-North Carolina winner takes on either ninth-seeded Michigan State and eighth-seeded Mississippi State in the second round on Saturday.

North Carolina (27-7) holds a No. 1 regional seed for an NCAA-record 18th time.

“It’s great being a No. 1 seed, but it’s an NCAA Tournament,” Hubert Davis said. “It’s 68 accomplished teams, so you have to come play, whatever seed you are, wherever you play. … I know the importance of being able to play close to home, so playing in Charlotte for potentially the first two rounds and being closer to our fans is a big deal for us, but it’s just fun coming into the tournament.”

Wagner has been an underdog throughout recent games, defeating the top three teams on the road in the Northeast Conference tournament to get a chance to be in the NCAAs.

“We never stopped believing,” coach Donald Copeland said. “We never stopped having an expectation of ourselves.”

The Seahawks used only seven players on Tuesday, and that could be an issue facing a deep North Carolina team. Three Wagner players logged all 40 minutes in the First Four contest.

“Happens every day,” Wagner guard Melvin Council Jr., who scored a team-high 21 points against Howard, said of the short bench. “We just go preach toughness every day.”

The Tar Heels are 12-1 in NCAA Tournament games played in Charlotte. Yet the last time North Carolina got to play an in-state NCAA Tournament game, it lost in the 2018 second round to Texas A&M in Charlotte.

Playing another game is bound to be a tonic for the Tar Heels, who absorbed a stunning 84-76 loss to rival North Carolina State in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship game on Saturday in Washington.

“We know what we need to do,” Tar Heels forward Armando Bacot said. “And as long as we get back to the game plans and what the coaches have told us to do, we’ll be fine.”

North Carolina, despite holding the preseason No. 1 ranking last season, didn’t get a bid to the 2023 NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels last played in the event in 2022, when they lost to Kansas in the title game to end Hubert Davis’ first season as head coach after he took over for the retired Roy Williams.

This will be the first meeting between Wagner and North Carolina.

–Bob Sutton, Field Level Media

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