In the first Big Ten men’s basketball game of the 2022-23 season, No. 22 Maryland started off with a bang, winning its eighth straight game to start the season in a 71-66 victory over No. 16 Illinois. Not only did Friday mark the Terps’ first win over a ranked opponent and begin their conference campaign on the right note, it also provided some legitimacy to Maryland’s ranking and proved that it has the potential to compete with the top teams in the league in year one under Kevin Willard.
With optimism about the direction of the team and program skyrocketing among Terps fans, here are three takeaways from the game.
Jahmir Young stepped up when it mattered most.
Guard Jahmir Young came to Maryland from Charlotte with intentions of representing the flagship university of his home state as a graduate student. When he made that decision, the Upper Marlboro native envisioned playing against some of the best teams in the Big Ten.
“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.”
In his first big game in front of Terps fans, Young was the best Maryland player on the floor, putting on a show to the tune of a game-high 24 points. The game was back-and-forth from the start to the finish, and Young’s play made sure that the Fighting Illini never pulled ahead. On a night where the fans participated in the annual “Gold Rush” theme game, it looked like Willard struck gold with his transfer point guard, especially in the clutch.
With a one-point lead and the clock winding down, Young rose up and drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the arc to seal the victory, by far the biggest shot of the game.
“That was an unbelievable feeling ... just being able to hit that shot was amazing. It was a dream come true. You dream to do [that] as a kid,” Young said.
While the late-game heroics were the highlight of the night for Young, his play went way beyond the stat sheet. He expertly commanded the Terps’ offense and was active on defense as well, providing a spark for the team even when it was on a cold streak. Any semblance of nerves was nowhere to be found, as he came out on fire to begin the game and kept that intensity all of the 35 minutes he played.
Hakim Hart’s play allowed the Terps to survive an off night from Julian Reese.
After dominating down low and establishing a post presence for the Terps through seven games, sophomore forward Julian Reese had his first real competition from a strong frontcourt when Illinois came to town. While he had his moments — most notably a clutch offensive rebound and layup late in the game — Reese had just five points on the night and got just two shots off from the field. He went 3-of-6 from the free throw line.
“[Reese], he’s gonna get better. Like, he’s gonna learn from this stuff. Everybody’s just gotta be patient the way I am,” Willard said. “I think he played [at a] high level. It’s just like, he’s gonna have some times where the more he faces this physicality, the more he faces size, the more he’ll get used to it, the more he’ll adjust to it and the more he’ll have games like he was having.”
Against the likes of Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins and Dain Dainja, Reese was rendered mostly ineffective. Maryland kept it close rebounding-wise but allowed the Fighting Illini to dominate in the paint, outscoring the Terps, 44-28.
If it wasn’t for senior guard Hakim Hart, that could’ve costed Maryland the game.
Hart has admitted in the past that he can take some time to ease his way into the flow of the game, but once he got settled in he was one of the most reliable players on the floor for Maryland. He finished the first half with 14 points — second only to Young — after nailing four of his five attempts from three. Despite only scoring three points in the second half, Hart’s play was very important throughout.
In his four years at Maryland, Hart has always been a great defender and hustled all over the floor. He’s been adept at forcing turnovers, battling for rebounds and quietly leading the team, but he looks to have added a knockdown jumper and high-level offensive ability to his arsenal. At six-foot-eight, Hart can be a major mismatch for smaller defenders and very difficult for opponents to handle moving forward.
XFINITY Center was electric.
For decades, Maryland has earned a reputation for having one of the toughest home-court advantages in the nation, and despite recent criticisms of low attendance and concerns of fan apathy, Terps fans showed up loud and proud in the team’s Big Ten opener against the Fighting Illini.
Friday was the annual “Gold Rush” game, and the students — donning their gold shirts in conjunction with the team — made their presence felt from the jump. All night long, Illinois was met with a wall of noise and was made subject to a wide variety of cheers and jeers from the Maryland faithful.
“Great place to play. It’s a great college, it’s a great program. This program should be this every single night,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said of Maryland. “It’s a hard place to play ... that’s as a good a college atmosphere as you’re gonna find tonight. Proud of my guys for fighting, and yet this is still the one building I haven’t cracked in the Big Ten yet.”
The Fighting Illini are now 0-3 in College Park since Underwood took over in 2017. Underwood’s Oklahoma State team also lost at Maryland in 2016.
XFINITY Center showcased itself as an elite college basketball venue as recently as three seasons ago, when the Terps were ranked in the top 10 and even played host to ESPN’s College GameDay show ahead of a matchup with Michigan State. But, the COVID-19 pandemic closed the arena’s doors in 2020-21, and the program underwent a tumultuous 2021-22 season with the departure of Mark Turgeon and a struggling product on the court.
Very quickly, though, Willard re-energized the fanbase through his preseason rhetoric and exciting style of play that resulted in his first team starting 7-0. That, combined with a recognizable and ranked opponent coming to College Park, created the perfect storm for fans to pack the building once again, and the atmosphere lived up to the expectations.
The fans kept the energy up the whole game and made a major difference by rallying the team. After the final buzzer sounded, the Terps made their appreciation for the support known, racing over to the student section and thanking the students by celebrating with them.
“That felt amazing, just being able to, you know, be close up with them and see their emotion ... I felt like that was very special,” Young said.
“It was definitely special for me,” Hart added. “It hasn’t been like that, like you said, since my freshman year. I don’t think my freshman year we went to the crowd, so it was just good to, you know, share it with them.”