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No. 22 Maryland men’s basketball narrowly defeats No. 16 Illinois, 71-66

The Terps knocked off the 16th-ranked Illini to open Big Ten play.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.

In its biggest home game since the 2019-20 season, No. 22 Maryland men’s basketball and No. 16 Illinois were deadlocked in a battle down to the wire.

The Terps had controlled much of the game — leading for the majority — but the Fighting Illini refused to dissipate.

Leading 67-66 with less than a minute to play, Maryland needed a dagger. Kevin Willard called a timeout with 28.3 seconds to play and 16 seconds left on the shot clock. Who did the Terps turn to? None other than the hometown kid: Jahmir Young.

After three years at Charlotte, nerves could have been expected for the graduate guard and Upper Marlboro, Maryland native in his first big home game.

Young not only stepped up to the task. He crushed it.

Young nailed the game-sealing three from the top of the key with 14 seconds left and the shot clock expiring. His clutch, behemoth of a shot from the top of the key gave Maryland the 70-66 lead, all it needed to knock off the Fighting Illini.

“That’s why Jahmir came here,” head coach Kevin Willard said. “I mean, he wanted to play the highest level of basketball at a big-time program and a big-time area. That’s why he’s here. I think he walked out in this first time, this is what he signed up for. He wanted the big-time moment, the big-time crowd. And he’s a big-time player.”

Willard got his first signature win as Maryland head coach, and the Terps improved to 8-0.

Fans packed the XFINITY Center for the first big home game of the Kevin Willard era and probably the biggest home game since the 2019-20 season. Dressed in gold for the annual “Gold Rush” game, 4,000 students surrounded the hardwood from the baselines to the sidelines, creating a bonkers environment for the top-25 tilt.

With a defensive stop and a Young triple to start the game, it felt like the roof was going to blow off the arena.

Both teams pressed from the jump, setting the tone for a rampant pace. Illinois held a 14-11 lead at the first media timeout, with Illinois junior big Coleman Hawkins trading blows with Young and senior forward Donta Scott.

Willard was clearly feeding off the crowd, including a moment where he emphatically pointed down the floor like he was an official giving possession to Maryland after Illinois freshman guard Skyy Clark dribbled off his foot.

Regardless of what ultimately happened at the end of the game, it was clear early on that the energy surrounding the Maryland men’s basketball faithful has been restored.

“I started a tradition at Seton Hall, and our guys after every game went up and thanked the students,” Willard said. “They started walking off the court [after the game], and I was like, you know you just had 6,000 students come to your game, you better walk there and thank them. I’ll probably just think about how great the student section is because I’ve heard about it, I’ve heard about the flag, but that’s the first time I actually saw it. It was really cool.”

On the court, the Terps were speeding up the Fighting Illini. Senior guard Hakim Hart and Young hit back-to-back threes within 21 seconds of each other, forcing an Illinois timeout about halfway through the first frame. Illini head coach Brad Underwood was clearly livid, getting in the face of one of his players immediately after calling for time.

Maryland was able to extend its lead to 28-16 at the under-eight media break of the first half, dictating the game’s tempo with its intensity on both ends of the floor.

Illinois stopped the bleeding thereafter, going on a 9-0 run, but the Terps had an emphatic answer from Hart. The senior hit back-to-back triples, re-padding Maryland’s cushion and reigniting the building.

Maryland went into halftime with a 41-34 lead, and Young led it with 15 points.

The Terps quickly extended their lead back to 11 to start the second half, but the Illini refused to go away, cutting the lead to 49-43 with about 15 minutes to play.

Illinois clamped up on the defensive end, muddying the game up and taking its turn to control the tempo. The Illini rattled off an extended 9-0 run to trim the deficit to 55-54 with under nine minutes to play, forcing Willard to burn a timeout. Maryland did not score a bucket for four-plus minutes, but Scott hit a tough two in the paint to weather the storm.

However, the game completely flipped upside down. Senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr. hit one of two free throws to tie the game for the first time since early in the first half.

Maryland built its lead back up to five, but the Illini once again answered to knot the game at 62 by the final media timeout. The Terps went on a significant scoring drought yet again, this one lasting three-plus minutes.

Needing an all-important defensive stop leading by one and just a few minutes left, Ian Martinez came up with an emphatic swat of a freshman guard Jayden Epps 3-pointer. Young and Shannon traded deuces on the ensuing possessions, leaving Maryland right were it was moments before.

The Terps and Fighting Illini continued to trade buckets, but it was Young who had the final say.

Three things to know

1. The XFINITY Center was bananas. The Maryland home crowd was lackluster for the start of the Willard era, but both students and alumni answered the call Friday night. Terps fans once again showed why the XFINITY Center is considered to have one of the best big-game atmospheres in all of college basketball.

“It’s a shame, I told Kevin before the game, I said ‘God dang, it’s nice to see some fans here,’” Underwood said. “I mean, what the hell do the Maryland fans want? That was electric. This reminded me of the year I came in here at Oklahoma State, and you could shoot a damn shotgun in this place in the Coppin State game and you’re not hitting anybody. This is what it should be about in the Big Ten.”

2. Jahmir Young answered any questions of whether he could play at this level. Oftentimes, players make the jump from mid-major to high-major basketball and fail to live up to their billing. On Friday, and with his strong start to the season, Young put those doubters to rest. The Upper Marlboro, Maryland native shined Friday, putting up 24 points and the biggest shot of Maryland’s season. Young not only contributed, but starred in his first big game for his hometown team, which is incredibly impressive.

“Just to give it all we got and all I got, really,” Young said of his emotions going into the game. “And just putting in the work all preseason, all summer. It was just fun to show to be able to just trust your work, going out there and just having fun.”

3. Maryland men’s basketball has arrived. No one could have imagined this success for Willard and his program early, probably not even Willard. Regardless, the Terps stayed undefeated and picked up the first home signature win of the Willard era. For a program that did not even make the NIT one year ago, Maryland is as nationally relevant as any team in the country.