Melvin Council Jr. scores 21, Wagner begins March Madness with 71-68 win over Howard in First Four

Wagner coach Donald Copeland gestures during the first half of the team's First Four college basketball game against Howard in the men's NCAA Tournament, Tuesday, March 19, 2024, in Dayton, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

Wagner coach Donald Copeland gestures during the first half of the team’s First Four college basketball game against Howard in the men’s NCAA Tournament, Tuesday, March 19, 2024, in Dayton, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

DAYTON, Ohio (AP) — Wagner kicked off March Madness with the first NCAA Tournament win in program history, getting 21 points from Melvin Council Jr. and holding off a late rally by Howard to win 71-68 in the First Four on Tuesday night.

The Northeast Conference champion Seahawks (17-15) advanced as the No. 16 seed in the West Region and will play top seed North Carolina on Thursday.

“To have the first NCAA Tournament victory in school history, it’s huge,” second-year Wagner coach Donald Copeland said. “It’s huge for the school, the program and these guys, man, that have gone through so much, man, to continue to build and continue to write their own season the way they needed to.”

Howard trailed by 17 points early in the second half but went on a late 14-2 run, closing within 69-68 on Bryce Harris’ layup with 18 seconds left. After Julian Brown hit a pair of free throws for Wagner, Howard attempted three 3-pointers in the last 6 seconds but missed them all.

Brown finished with 15 points for the Seahawks, who made their only previous NCAA Tournament appearance in 2003 — one year before Copeland made the first of his two appearances in the tourney as a player for Seton Hall.

Harris and Seth Towns scored 16 points apiece for Howard (18-16), the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion, which was also seeking its first March Madness win. The Bison made it to the tourney for the second straight season under coach Kenny Blakeney, who won a national title as a player for Duke in 1992.

Tahron Allen’s layup with 16:42 left in the first half put Wagner ahead 7-6, and the Seahawks never trailed again. They built a 17-point lead in the first half and equaled that advantage early in the second.

Wagner shot 52.7% overall and 47.1% (8 of 17) from 3-point range while holding Howard to 38.6% from the field.

“We still were able, I think, to get three great looks at the basket,” Blakeney said. “But sometimes the basketball gods are with you and sometimes they’re not.”

Allen and Keyontae Lewis finished with 10 points apiece as all seven Seahawks who entered the game scored. Wagner had only seven players available for all of conference play because of injuries.

“Having seven players, I would imagine some places, they might just come in the gym and just, ‘Hey, listen, we got seven, let’s go through the motions,’” Copeland said. “We never did that. We prepared the right way.”

MADE FOR THE MOMENT

Three Seahawks players finished with four fouls apiece, and Wagner’s injury-depleted rotation looked gassed during Howard’s late run. But it was nothing new for the scrappy school from Staten Island.

“We go and just preach toughness every day,” Council said. “So there’s no difference.”

COMPETITIVE STAMINA

Council, Brown and Javier Ezquerra each played all 40 minutes for the Seahawks. Ezquerra had eight assists.

“This guy right here told me to drink a lot of water because I like to drink Gatorade,” Council said, referencing Ezquerra. “Shout-out to Javi. That’s why I don’t get tired.”

JUNIOR COLLEGE LEGEND

Council joined the Seahawks after two years at Monroe College, where he was a NJCAA Division I All-American and the team’s all-time leading scorer with 1,400 points.

“He’s a baller. He loves to play and compete and he lives for moments like this,” Copeland said. “That’s what you’re seeing right now is a reflection of all the work behind closed doors that he allows us to put into him, and it’s paid off.”

UP NEXT

Wagner has a quick turnaround before facing UNC at 2:45 p.m. EDT Thursday in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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

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