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Kevin Willard secures first win as Maryland coach in season-opening 71-49 win over Niagara

Donta Scott led the Terps with 18 points and Jahmir Young added 14 in his Maryland debut.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.

Only five coaches in the last 50 years have walked out of Maryland’s tunnel on opening night as the head coach of the prestigious men’s basketball program. Kevin Willard was the latest when he debuted as Maryland’s lead man Monday night.

Willard’s tenure got off to a winning start, as Maryland handily defeated Niagara, 71-49, in College Park, the first of what Willard and Maryland fans hope is many more wins to come.

Donning a slick black suit and red tie, Willard walked out to a big applause from the home crowd, soaking in the walk to the bench as he glanced up at the student section.

“It was weird, to be honest with you,” Willard said about the emotions of his first game.

Willard proclaimed all preseason his team was going to play with tempo, a different style of play Maryland fans are used to. Willard’s proclamation came to fruition in the early going of Monday night’s contest.

The Terps showcased a 2-2-1 full-court press through the first few minutes that fell back to a 1-3-1 zone defense. Maryland also pushed the pace offensively, grabbing defensive rebounds and getting out in transition.

Familiar faces carried the scoring in the opening minutes for Maryland as senior guard Hakim Hart drained a 3-pointer, followed by another triple from senior guard Donta Scott.

Maryland got out to a 18-8 lead that forced a Niagara timeout, with 13 of those 18 points coming from the longest-tenured Terps: Scott and Hart.

“This new era, we’re going to make it our era,” Scott said.

Willard said Maryland planned to shoot an abundance of threes and play fast. He acknowledged it could look ugly at times, especially early on.

Willard kept his promise, but his prediction didn’t quite pan out, at least in the opener. Maryland’s fast style produced a beautiful style of basketball that led to the Terps moving the ball at a high rate and quality looks at three.

The Terps started the game 5-for-7 from three and jumped out to an early 14-point lead less than 10 minutes in.

However, Maryland cooled off offensively, missing its next four 3-pointers and allowing Niagara to cut the lead to single digits.

As expected with a smaller lineup, Maryland struggled to control the glass, giving up eight offensive rebounds and losing the rebounding battle by four to the Purple Eagles in the first half.

It’s common for coaching staffs to experiment with certain lineups in game one of a 31-game season, and Willard’s staff was no different in the opener. Nine players took the floor for Maryland in the first half, causing discombobulated rotations that struggled to score and defend.

After looking dominant through the first 10 minutes, Maryland looked flat in the latter minutes of the first half, entering the break with a 34-27 lead.

“We were in a really good offensive rhythm, we we’re scoring and then I put two lineups out there that haven't practiced together and it was very evident that we got stationary on offense,” Willard said. “It wasn’t the players fault, it was my fault because I put in terrible lineups.”

Niagara out-energized Maryland out of the halftime break, as the Purple Eagles fought on the glass and created extra chances. Niagara cut Maryland’s lead to four by the first media timeout.

But, Maryland had a quick answer on the heels of Charlotte transfer Jahmir Young, who reached double figures early in the second half in his first game as a Terp — he finished with 14 points. The Terps went back to their full-court press, which had seemingly been stowed away after working earlier in the game.

The Terps sped up Niagara’s lackluster ball-handlers, forcing turnovers through its press that allowed Maryland to get out in transition for easy baskets.

Maryland’s staff cut down its rotation in the second half, playing its starting unit for extended minutes which allowed the Terps to pull away as the second half went on.

Two threes by Scott in the span of two minutes, followed by a jumper by graduate guard Don Carey gave Maryland its largest lead of the game at 19 with four minutes remaining. Scott finished the game as Maryland’s leading scorer with 18 points, while Hart had nine. Carey contributed with five and sophomore forward Julian Reese chipped in seven points.

“He’s going to be an 18 and 10 guy,” Willard said about Scott. “I think he’s going to be a first team All-Big Ten player.”

Willard refused to take his foot off the gas, pressing until the final minutes despite holding a huge lead. Eventually, he pulled the plug and subbed in the reserves. When it was all said and done, Willard’s first game, and win, as Maryland’s coach was a dominant 22-point victory.

Three things to know

1. Kevin Willard wasn't lying about playing with pace. Maryland played fast, looking to push the ball whenever it got the opportunity, either for open threes or transition layups. That pace was created from its defensive approach. Maryland displayed a bunch of different defensive looks: man-to-man press, zone press, 1-3-1 half-court zone, half-court man and others. Maryland was able to play at such a high pace in large part because of its press. With the roster Willard has, it makes sense to push the ball rather than playing with a slow, drudgy style Maryland fans had grown accustomed to in previous seasons. Although it’s just one game down, expect this play style to continue throughout the season.

2. Maryland’s lack of size shined through in game one. A big concern coming into this season for Maryland was its lack of size, which was on full display against an inferior opponent. Julian Reese is the center for Maryland, but he is a six-foot-nine true forward and Maryland does not have much height on the floor beside him. In the first half, Maryland lost the rebounding battle and had half as many points in the paint as Niagara. Maryland out-rebounded Niagara for the game, but the lack of size in the front court will be a concern moving forward.

3. Maryland is still figuring out its lineups. The starting lineup for the Terps was exactly what everyone expected. The question mark was always the depth, or lack thereof, that is on this roster. Junior guard Ian Martinez was the first Terp off the bench and had some productive minutes. Willard experimented playing a bunch of different players beyond him, with varying results, including freshman guard Noah Batchelor, junior guard Jahari Long and graduate forward Patrick Emilien. As the season goes on, the lineup will surely tighten up, but there will be some ugly moments in the first few weeks.