On Saturday, Kevin Willard became the first head coach in Maryland men’s basketball history to start their tenure 4-0.
On Sunday, why not look for more?
All of the things that Willard has preached this team will be have come to fruition. The Terps are playing incredibly hard, especially on the defensive end, and are playing with the fast pace he promised (see the 91.5 points per game they scored this weekend). Outsiders predicted his operation may take some time to excel, but this group has jumpstarted it.
“I have an easy rule. I’m a pretty easy coach to play for,” Willard said. “If you play really hard, I’ll let you take any shot you want, pretty much, and I’ll let you do [it]. It’s the only thing I ask, is that you come out, you play hard, you play together, and I’ll let you kind of do what you want to do. So I think these guys understand that, I also think it’s their personalities.”
Maryland put it all together against Miami Sunday, leaving its fingerprints over all facets of the game. Senior Donta Scott’s 24 points led a Maryland offensive brigade that featured 60% shooting from the field, an 43% clip from 3-point range, 11 offensive boards and all five starters in double figures.
The Terps defeated the Hurricanes, 88-70, winning the Hall of Fame Tip Off Classic title and improving to 5-0 for the first time since the 2019-20 season.
With both teams looking to improve to 5-0 and secure a multi-team event championship, Sunday’s first game of a doubleheader got off to a blazing start.
Maryland made its presence felt on the offensive glass early, securing three offensive boards to go with six second-chance points before the first media timeout.
The intensity on both sides of the floor stood out all first half. The Terps doubled their offensive rebound total by the second media timeout and continued to turn defense into offense. Sophomore forward Julian Reese and graduate forward Patrick Emilien protected the rim, not necessarily blocking, but altering shots to allow the Terps to push the pace.
In addition to the Terps’ hustle, they continued to shoot the lights out. Maryland went on an 11-0 run lasting nearly three minutes to extend its lead to double digits, and the flow of the game allowed the “sniper” in Don Carey to come out.
After struggling from beyond the arc to start the season, Carey got his groove back at Mohegan Sun, hitting four threes against Saint Louis and nailing three of his first four Sunday.
About halfway into the first half, the Terps had their largest lead at 28-17. Miami would not go away just yet, though, rattling off a 7-0 run of its own to cut the deficit to 28-24 and force a Maryland timeout with under eight minutes to play in the half.
If it weren’t for its 11 first-half turnovers — some of which were careless passes — Maryland’s lead could have been even more than it was at the break. Miami turned those turnovers into 12 points, but that was still less than the halftime difference.
The good thing for the Terps is that outside of the turnovers, they were putting on a clinic on both ends of the floor. Maryland went into the locker room with a 47-34 lead, shooting a scorching 63% from the floor and 7-for-13 from distance. While Hakim Hart led the way with 16 first-half points Saturday, Scott filled those shoes Sunday with 15 in the first frame.
Scott continued to make his impact early in the second half, using his strength to back his man down and hit a shot in the paint to extend the Terps’ lead to 15.
The same intensity from the first half seemed to only bubble in the second. After he was called for a questionable reach-in foul, Reese responded with an emphatic block on Miami star Isaiah Wong, leading to a long Jahmir Young two-pointer in transition.
Maryland never let go if its grip, extending its lead to a game-high 19 points with about 14 minutes left after Reese corralled an offensive rebound and powered it back up for a deuce.
“Well, we didn’t have the same energy that we had yesterday, and Maryland took it right to us,” Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga said. “They were the aggressor from start to finish.”
Wong started to make his impact felt, scoring four points in a row to cut the lead to 10, the lowest it had been in the second half, with about six minutes to play.
With Miami having a chance to cut the lead to single digits, Reese continued to be a stud defensively, blocking a shot and forcing a jump ball on the Miami offensive board. Young was altered by the Miami pressure, but was able to penetrate for an and-one when the Terps got back in their half-court sets, extending their lead back to 13.
“We’re still growing,” Young said. “We get after it in practice, that builds our chemistry a lot. I feel like we’re still growing, we still have a lot to get under our belt and still got a lot to learn.”
But the Terps exuded immense confidence throughout Sunday’s 40 minutes, never giving Miami a large enough window to punch back.
Carey hit his fourth triple to bring the lead to 16, and a Reese dunk pushed it back to 18, icing the game.
Maryland turned the ball over 18 times Sunday, which of course needs to be cleaned up, but it was so good in other aspects of the game that it didn’t matter.
“Miami is very good, and obviously coach Larrañaga, 700 wins, is a Hall of Fame basketball coach,” Willard said. “But yeah, I mean, I think we’re really not worried about signature wins or where we are. I think we still have a long way to go. I mean, we’re good, we have great players, but we’re, they’re still trying to learn this system, and they’re still trying to get comfortable.”
Three things to know
1. Playing harder than ever. This team just has a different feel to it through five games. For 80 minutes this weekend, Maryland brought the utmost intensity both offensively and defensively, and it led to the first signature wins of the Willard era. Willard has remarked that as long as his players play hard on the defensive hand, they have freedom offensively. That recipe worked to perfection this weekend, as the Terps are well on their way to exceeding outside expectations and turning into a formidable group.
“We have unbelievably high character kids who want to win, and they understand what it takes to win,” Willard said. “And they’re bringing it every night, and they’re getting rewarded. They’re getting rewarded for their hard work and their effort they’re putting in, and that’s what matters to me.”
2. Eight-man rotation solidified. On Saturday and Sunday, Willard got comfortable with his rotation. Young, Carey, Hart, Scott and Reese have started all five games thus far. Willard’s previous first three off the bench — Ian Martinez, Jahari Long and Emilien — have primarily turned into his only three off the bench this weekend. Borderline guys like Noah Batchelor and Ike Cornish only played when the wins were wrapped up.
3. How about Donta Scott? Just under two weeks before the season started, Willard spoke on Donta Scott. He said that the Terps’ four-year veteran had an NBA game, but not an NBA body. In response, Scott lost 27 pounds and cut his body fat from 16% to 9%, according to Willard. This weekend in Uncasville, Connecticut, Maryland fans saw the complete package. Scott backed down players for buckets, drilled 3-pointers, rebounded with authority, took charges and more.
This team will go as far as Scott takes it. So far, that seems to be a positive sign.