BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It started and ended with Jahmir Young free throws.
Maryland hadn’t scored in seven minutes and 39 seconds. It trailed by 12 in the first half when Jahmir Young forced his way to the rim and earned himself a pair of shots from the line. He drained both, spurring a gutsy comeback.
With just 4.7 seconds left to play, Young was fouled once more, this time intentionally with his team leading and a chance to extend its lead to three. His first shot was good. The second — no such luck.
West Virginia grabbed the rebound and raced down the court. A two would tie it. A three would win it.
The ball went into the blazing-hot hands of Kedrian Johnson. The fifth-year guard snatched it, took two steps beyond half-court and let it fly for the win. It hung in the air for an eternity, sailing toward the hoop with the potential to both move the Mountaineers on and send the Terps home packing.
Johnson had already scored 17 points in the second half. He was the guy West Virginia wanted the ball in the hands of. But his shot was short. Maryland survived and advanced, the maxim of playing in the NCAA Tournament.
“The last shot, it looked to me like it grazed the end of the rim,” West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins said. “He’s an inch away from winning the game for us. It was dead on line. It was dead on line. It just missed by a few inches.”
Eighth-seeded Maryland defeated ninth-seeded West Virginia, 67-65, on Thursday, moving on to the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32. In his first year as the Terps’ head coach, Kevin Willard has an NCAA Tournament win under his belt — the second of his career.
“I’m more excited for the kids than I am for me,” Willard said. “This group — I’ve talked about it a lot. This group, they have come together, they have asked to do everything that I’ve asked them to do. ... They have worked hard and they have had a great attitude, and I’m just excited for them.”
Playing in the first game of the first round of the NCAA Tournament is a real opportunity for exposure. Television sets around the nation all simultaneously tune into the same game, ready to kick off one of the most action-packed days on the American sports calendar.
Before nine minutes had elapsed, they were tuned out. It was ugly.
On its first eight possessions, Maryland turned the ball over five times. It trailed 16-4 and hadn’t made a shot in what felt like forever — the field-goal drought lasted eight minutes and 28 seconds, to be exact. West Virginia had scored the last 14 points.
Because of the turnovers, Maryland couldn’t get shots up, let alone score. When forward Julian Reese hit a floater to end the field-goal-less period, it was the Terps’ eighth shot of the first half. West Virginia had taken 16.
“I just told my team just keep fighting. You get down, you don’t want to get down on yourselves. At that point it’s battle time. It’s time to lock in,” forward Donta Scott said.
With made shots comes the ability to press, and with that comes disruption. Maryland kicked its full-court pressure into gear once the shots starting falling and a game that was teetering on the edge of running away became a whole lot more interesting.
A switch flipped. Maryland exploded on a 16-2 run. It drained five of six shots, capped off by a three from Young that thrust the Terps into the lead with just over six minutes left in the half.
From there, the first half went back and forth. When the buzzer sounded, Maryland somehow, someway led 32-30.
When the second half started, West Virginia again came out hot, much hotter than the Terps.
In the college basketball world, it’s a classic aphorism that guard play wins in March. It’s even better to have experienced guards. On Thursday, West Virginia had the best of both worlds with Johnson.
He bullied his way to the rim and converted on a layup while being fouled. The next possession — same thing. Next time up the court it was a four-point play after draining a three with contact. Johnson went on a 10-0 run all by himself to spark the Mountaineers and balloon their second-half lead to as much as nine.
“I saw opportunities. Most teams play my drives, so they always go under the screen so I just stepped back and shot the ball. When I had the opportunity to drive, I took it to the basket, got fouled, and finished it,” Johnson said.
But the Terps refused to quit once again, forcing themselves back on top despite missing Young, who sat on the bench in foul trouble, a commonality for both teams Thursday. Maryland and West Virginia were both in the bonus just over midway through the period, and a grand total of 38 free throws were shot in the game.
After West Virginia forward Jimmy Bell Jr. fouled out with 10:16 left to play, Maryland made a concerted effort to feed the ball down low and found success there.
“I had a smaller guy on me. Bell was such a force down low, and I felt like we took advantage of that well in the second half,” Reese said.
Because of West Virginia’s lack of an interior presence, Reese began to take the game over. He totaled 13 points in the latter 20 minutes of the game, grabbing seven boards in the process. He finished the game leading the Terps in both categories with 17 points and nine rebounds.
“I think anyone that’s watched us over the last month and a half, two months, understands how good Julian Reese is,” Willard said. “We were struggling. They were doing a great job trapping pick-and-rolls. And I have a lot of confidence throwing the ball down to Juju.
“I told him, ‘Big fella, I need a bucket. Go get me one.’
“He looked at me and said ‘I’m going to get ya, coach.’”
Four Terps finished with double-digit points: Reese, Young (10) and the senior tandem of Scott (11) and Hart (15), who both provided valuable minutes and made clutch plays down the stretch to help lift their team to victory in a do-or-die situation.
Three things to know
1. No Young, no problem. Jahmir Young severely struggled to create his usual separation against West Virginia’s physical guards. He made just one field goal, scoring seven of his 10 points at the free-throw line. He also had to sit on the bench for a while after he picked up his fourth foul, with head coach Kevin Willard opting to put Jahari Long in the game instead.
2. The little things. As is the case in close contests, hustle plays were the difference down the stretch. The Terps battled for 50/50 balls in the waning minutes of the game, most notably a big rebound by Scott retained possession after his own shot was off the mark with under 40 seconds on the clock.
3. What’s next? Maryland will face the winner of the game between No. 1-seed Alabama and No. 16-seed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Saturday with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line. The Crimson Tide are one of the favorites to win the national title, so Willard and his staff will get to work scouting the tournament’s top overall seed to try and pull off the upset.