Mar. Abr 23rd, 2024


DAYTON, Ohio — When Wagner’s lead shrank from 13 points to one in the final three minutes of Tuesday night’s First Four matchup against Howard, coach Donald Copeland kept his composure.

His team, quite literally, was on the floor, and he prepared to ride with it until the end.

«It’s not far of a look down the bench, right?» Copeland said. «You’ve got to be calm.»

Wagner had made its improbable run to the NCAA tournament with a roster of seven healthy players. The 16th-seeded Seahawks will forge on with the same group after outlasting Howard 71-68 for the school’s first NCAA tournament win.

Copeland’s magnificent seven advanced in the West Region and will face No. 1 seed North Carolina on Thursday in Charlotte, North Carolina.

«This is super tough,» guard Julian Brown said. «You would never think that we would come into March Madness with seven players and win. It’s definitely been surreal, it’s definitely been crazy, but we’ve got confidence in our guys.»

Brown hit two free throws with 14.9 seconds left — waiting out an officials’ stoppage in between to reset the clock — and pointed to his wrist each time. After Howard missed three 3-point attempts that would have tied the game before the buzzer, Brown again tapped his wrist, screaming «Game time!» to the crowd.

«My favorite player is Damian Lillard, I look up to him, model my game after it,» said Brown, who finished with 15 points. «Every time he makes a clutch basket, he says, ‘It’s time, it’s time.'»

Brown was one of three Wagner players to play all 40 minutes in the win, joining fellow guards Melvin Council Jr. (21 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds) and Javier Ezquerra (8 assists). Endurance is the only option for a team that lost standout Rahmir Moore and other key contributors to injuries, including most of its front line.

Wagner hasn’t held a practice with contact since December, and it needed the coaches to actively participate to simulate game situations. The team dropped three straight in January and four of its final five regular-season games but sparked in the Northeast Conference tournament, taking down the top three seeds to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003.

«I would imagine some places, they might come in the gym and say, ‘Hey, listen, we got seven, let’s go through the motions,'» Copeland said. «We never did that. We prepared the right way. We expected to win even when we did lose.»

Copeland had projected four of the injured players as starters and two as rotation players. But the group that stayed healthy forged on.

Council, a first-team all-league selection, said playing short-handed in the NCAA tournament made «no difference,» although he noted that Wagner didn’t want the game to reach overtime. In the huddle after Howard cut Wagner’s lead to one, Council, who was 0-of-3 from the foul line, told Brown to get the ball on an inbounds play.

«He’s the best,» Ezquerra said of Brown. «I know he was going to make it. He’s confident. He’s built for these moments.»

Howard, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion, had been flustered by Wagner’s defense most of the game but surged late behind Bryce Harris and Isiah Warfield. But after Brown’s free throws, the Bison couldn’t find the decisive basket as Jordan Hairston (twice) and Marcus Dockery missed from 3-point range. Forward Seth Towns, a 26-year-old in his eighth college season after playing for both Harvard and Ohio State, finished his career with 16 points, tying Harris for the team high.

Despite four turnovers in the final 3:18, Wagner did enough to keep playing in the tournament.

«We’ve only got seven guys, so late game, sometimes we get a little bit tired,» Brown said. «But Coach does in every practice, he pushes us through adversity. So we’re not rattled. We said, ‘Whatever happens, let’s just finish this game.'»


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