BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Kevin Willard is officially 1-0 in the NCAA Tournament as Maryland men’s basketball’s head coach.
No. 8-seed Maryland and No. 9-seed West Virginia played a classic March Madness game of runs, with 11 lead changes and the result in the balance as the final buzzer sounded.
“Survive and advance” is the old adage of March, but it proved true Thursday. The Terps will move on to the round of 32, where they will face No. 1 overall seed Alabama on Saturday.
Maryland had a disastrous start. Its response, sparked by its defense, was spectacular.
Far too often these takeaways have started with words on Maryland’s poor starts that buried it in a deep hole early. That was the case again Thursday, when Maryland found itself on the wrong end of a 19-6 score halfway through the first half.
At the under-12 media timeout, the Terps trailed 13-4. They had as many turnovers (six) as shot attempts and had given up five offensive rebounds. Maryland’s defensive effort prevented West Virginia from delivering the knockout blow — it held West Virginia to a nearly four-minute scoreless spell — but the Terps just could not buy a bucket.
Maryland’s scoring drought ballooned to a whopping seven and a half minutes before Willard burned his first timeout with 10:51 until halftime. Starting point guard Jahmir Young was benched for more than three minutes after three early turnovers, but the Terps would need him back in despite early troubles with West Virginia’s physicality.
“I told them, I said, ‘Let’s not get down 20,’” Willard said of the early timeout. “... The sideline reporter asked me. She is like, ‘Are you worried?’ I said, ‘We’re only down nine and we have four points. That’s a celebration on the road.’ So we’ve gotten off to slow starts on the road. But you know when you look up and you have six turnovers and it’s only 13-4, there’s reason to be excited. I’m a guy who looks at everything in a positive way, so I told the guys, ‘Guys, it’s 13-4, we have six turnovers. If that’s the best they can do then I think we’re in pretty good shape.’”
Young immediately got to the line after checking back in, ending an official scoring drought of seven minutes and 39 seconds. A high-arching 3-pointer by Joe Toussaint brought the Mountaineers’ lead back to 19-6, but it was — in the blink of an eye — all Terps for the rest of the frame.
The Terps rattled off a 7-0 run to bring their deficit to 19-13, and then a 9-0 run to take a 22-21 lead. Maryland’s defensive intensity kickstarted an extended 26-11 finish to the frame, giving it a 32-30 lead at halftime.
“It says a lot about our character to me,” senior guard Hakim Hart said. “It shows that we’re just going to continue to fight, no matter what the outcome could be. Just going [to] keep continuing to keep fighting.”
Maryland forced four separate West Virginia scoring droughts of at least two minutes in the first half, which allowed its offense to feel much more free-flowing than it did in the brutal first 10 minutes. The Terps held West Virginia to 39.3% shooting and forced eight turnovers, the same amount Maryland had in the first 20 minutes.
Julian Reese led a balanced offensive push.
In his first NCAA Tournament game, and his first game away from the gauntlet of Big Ten bigs in months, sophomore forward Julian Reese aced the task at hand.
Reese finished Thursday with a team-high 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting, a team-high nine rebounds, a team-high two blocks and three assists. Thirteen of Reese’s 17 points, nine of his boards and both of his blocks came in a clutch second-half performance. The one negative for Reese against the Mountaineers was his 5-of-10 mark from the charity stripe, an area that has been his Achilles heel.
“... Everybody has a little butterflies in their stomach coming out first game,” Reese said. “Especially against such a physical team that we’re not used to from a different conference. I feel like watching the film and after the first half we adjusted well, and I adjusted well, and I feel like I was able to elevate my game and elevated my teammates more doing things off the ball like passing, screening, rebounding.”
While Reese seems to be emerging as a star in front of our eyes — and the national scene’s — he was one four Terps who scored at least 10 points.
Hart had 15 points — seven in the first half and eight in the second — on 7-of-13 shooting. Senior forward Donta Scott, who at times seemed to not get enough looks in the post, had 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting. Maryland star point guard Jahmir Young did not have a great night (more on that below) but finished with 10 points. Graduate guard Don Carey also had nine points on three 3-pointers, his fifth game in his last six outings with three triples.
Maryland is at its best with offensive balance like Thursday’s, and the ceiling can be even higher when all cylinders are truly clicking.
Kedrian Johnson outshined Jahmir Young in the battle of point guards, but it was the former who experienced the dark side of March.
Young wasn’t having one of his finest nights, but he had a chance to push Maryland’s lead to three with just 4.7 seconds remaining.
After being fouled 90-plus feet away from the basket, Young hit the first of two free throws. If he hit the second one, Maryland would have been up three to, at worse, secure an extra period if Willard opted not to foul up three points. But Young’s second attempt hit the rim twice, bounced off the backboard, then rolled off the rim again into the hands of Emmitt Matthews Jr.
Matthews quickly threw an outlet pass to fifth-year guard Kedrian Johnson, who already had a career-high 27 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Johnson took two dribbles before lifting off one foot by the logo. Johnson’s shot was about an inch left and inch short from etching his name into March lore. Instead, in a game of runs and a game of inches, his shot bounced off the rim, allowing the Terps to survive.
MARYLAND SURVIVES #MarchMadness @TerrapinHoops pic.twitter.com/smndqmfBmC— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 16, 2023
Although Johnson ended up on the gloomy side of the best event in sports as opposed to the glorious one, his performance near-singlehandedly kept the Mountaineers in it. Matthews Jr. exited early in the second half with a shoulder injury before returning later. Fifth-year guard Erik Stevenson made only four of his 17 shots, and starting center Jimmy Bell Jr. fouled out in just 11 minutes.
Of Johnson’s 27 points, none were more important than his personal 10-0 run with West Virginia trailing 38-31 early in the second half. Johnson’s 10 points came via back-to-back old-fashioned three-point plays and a four-point moment to put the cherry on top. He may not be remembered on the winning side, but his performance kept Maryland from blowing the doors off the Mountaineers to start the second half.
“That’s a bad man right there,” Willard said of Johnson. “He’s a tough matchup. I’m a big fan of his.”
Young, on the other hand, struggled in his first NCAA Tournament game. He finished with 10 points — seven that came at the free-throw line — on 1-for-5 shooting. Young also had four fouls, a rare occurrence for Maryland’s best player.
“I think it’s one thing to practice against that defense for a couple days. It’s another thing to all of a sudden see a Coach Huggins defense live,” Willard said. “For anything, it was just getting him to kind of calm down, see it. We have total confidence in him. And I think once he kind of saw it and everybody saw it, it was like a boxing match. He got hit a couple times, and I think it just relaxed him. He was able to see it. And I thought he was pretty good the rest of the game.”
Young has played three postseason games as a Terp — Thursday and two respective Big Ten Tournament games against Minnesota and Indiana — and the increased intensity and attention has caused trouble; Young is shooting 33.3% in Maryland’s past three games.
If Maryland is going to have a chance at knocking off Alabama in a practical true road game, it will need Young to be the All-Big Ten player he has been all season long.