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First Four: UC Davis edges NC Central; No. 1 seed Kansas up next

UC Davis lives to play another game in its first NCAA Tournament appearance.

The Aggies (23-12) fended off North Carolina Central, 67-63, Wednesday in a First Four game at UD Arena to get a shot at top-seeded Kansas (28-4) in the first round.

N.C. Central (25-9) battled back from as much as a nine-point deficit midway through the second half to make it 64-63 on Dajuan Graf’s 3-pointer with 1:50 left and twice had a chance to take a lead and couldn’t get shots to fall. UC Davis made 3 of 4 free throws down the stretch to close it out.

“We as a staff just asked them to fight, to keep it going,” UC Davis coach Jim Les said. “This has been an unbelievable ride, and we’re not ready to go home. And I can’t tell you how proud I am of them for their resiliency. It was remarkable.”

The Eagles had surged late in the first half, too, after a slow start.

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UC Davis led by as many as nine in the first half after Mikey Henn’s 3-pointer with 12:19 left made it 18-9, but N.C. Central responded with a 16-3 run, including 12 straight points to start it, to push ahead. The Eagles never trailed the rest of the half, though the score was tied five times before Graf’s 3-pointer 3-pointer at the buzzer gave them a 34-31 advantage at the break.

Chima Moneke had started off hot for UC Davis, scoring eight points in the first eight minutes, but NC Central switched to the 1-3-1 zone, which proved effective in shutting him down the rest of the half. He adjusted after halftime, scoring the first points of a 9-0 run for the Aggies, and finished with a game-high 18 points and 12 rebounds.

“We started the half with some stops,” Les said. “I thought we were much better — we talked on the board about how we wanted to attack the 1-3-1 — and I thought we were a little bit more in tune to how we wanted to attack that defense, and it helped us get us going a little bit and gave them a little bit of confidence.”

N.C. Central, which started five seniors, began its climb from a 54-45 deficit with just over 11 minutes left, and Pablo Rivas played a big role in the comeback with eight of his 12 points for the game coming during that time. He also had three assists, three rebounds and a steal in the final 10 minutes.

Graf led the Eagles with 15 points and five assists.

What’s next: UC Davis heads to Tulsa, where it faces top-seeded Kansas (28-4) on Friday.

Pivotal play: Moneke went 12 minutes without a point to close the first half but re-established himself as a threat inside when he scored the first bucket after halftime to spark an 11-2 run for the Aggies, as they took a lead they would never lose.

Unsung hero: Lawrence White had just six points in the second half but came up with a big defensive rebound when Dajuan Graf missed a 3-pointer coming out of a timeout with 38 seconds left and the Aggies clinging to a one-point lead. He was sent to the free-throw line and made both his attempts to add enough cushion to give UC Davis confidence to close it out.

Spotlight stat: N.C. Central caused problems for UC Davis’ offense, which finished with 18 turnovers, but the Eagles shot 28.6 percent in the second half. Fifteen of their 19 fastbreak points came in the first half.

Crowd count: Wednesday’s attendance was not yet available at time of publication. There were about 1,000 tickets remaining Tuesday night.

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