Withers steps up for UNC in win

North Carolina forward Jae'Lyn Withers shoots over Wagner forward Keyontae Lewis (32) during the first half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2024, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Coming into the NCAA Tournament, UNC needed to have someone step up to take the pressure off their two stars.

RJ Davis and Armando Bacot had turned the Tar Heels into a two-man team by the end of the ACC Tourney, scoring 44 of the team’s 72 points against Pitt, including 19 in a row at one point, and 48 of UNC’s 76 in the championship game loss, including 24 straight.

Playing against an undermanned 16-seed, the Tar Heels needed to find another option.

Cue Jae’Lyn Withers.

The Charlotte native stepped up with a double-double in front of him hometown fans, scoring 16 points with 10 rebounds and 3 assists off the bench, as UNC beat Wagner, 90-62 to advance to a Saturday game against Michigan State.

Withers was active inside, putting pressure on a Wagner team that had just seven healthy scholarship players and hadn’t been able to hold a full practice since December. The Seahawks played in Dayton two nights ago, and three Wagner bigs, including two starters, picked up three fouls in the first half, many while trying to contain Withers in the post.

“It’s extremely rewarding,” said Withers. “Obviously having a double-double in front of all those fans and my family, and contributing to the win is great. It’s obviously my first time in the tournament, so to do that in my first game is surreal.”

“I always tell the guys that when – and I specify when – your opportunity comes. I can’t tell you when, where, how, and which, but when it does come, you’ve got to be ready,” said coach Hubert Davis. “Jae Wit, when his number is called, has always been ready.”

That’s not to say the two veteran Tar Heels didn’t do their part. RJ Davis scored 17 points after halftime to finish with a game-high 22, while Bacot scored 20 points with 15 rebounds.

The Tar Heels outscored Wagner in the paint, 48-20 and outrebounded the Seahawks by 19.

“We had an enormous size advantage,” said Harrison Ingram. “We were going inside the whole game, pounding it inside.”

Now the Heels will face Tom Izzo and Michigan State. The two programs are no strangers. It will be the sixth time the Tar Heels and Spartans have met in the NCAA Tournament but first since the 2009 national championship game. They’ve played four times since then in the regular season with UNC winning three. Michigan State has never beaten UNC in the tourney.

“That’s why I came to North Carolina,” said Ingram, who transferred from Stanford prior to the season, “to play on the biggest stage against the best teams. Seeing Michigan State, a historic program, historic coach, bunch of good players. There’s nothing else you could ask for.”

Now that UNC has rediscovered its supporting cast for Davis and Bacot, there’s nothing else on its wish list.