BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — For Maryland men’s basketball, Saturday’s postseason opportunity presented the upside of its biggest win in years.
The Terps showed they had the wits to compete with No. 1 overall seed Alabama for about 30 minutes, but the latter earned that designation for a reason.
While so much of the attention is focused on Alabama’s high-powered offense and superstar freshman Brandon Miller, who finished with 19 points, the Crimson Tide’s defense — or lack of Maryland offensive production — was the story of Saturday’s game.
With sophomore forward Julian Reese hindered by foul trouble, the Terps never looked fluid in their sets. Credit goes to Alabama, which has the third-best adjusted defensive efficiency in Division I, but the Terps knew they needed a gargantuan effort to knock off the tournament’s top dog.
Outside of Reese’s inconsistent minutes, no Terp emerged as a go-to scoring option. Graduate guard Jahmir Young was held below his season average. Seniors Donta Scott and Hakim Hart stumbled in (maybe) their last game for just seven combined points. Graduate guard Don Carey (eight points) was solid in his role, but he was never going to be Maryland’s main man.
The Terps ultimately fell, 73-51, after making just 35.2% of their shots, missing their opportunity to add to March’s already-cemented chaos. Maryland wrapped up a successful 22-13 season in the round of 32, far more than many imagined for head coach Kevin Willard in year one.
“We’re in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in  days,” Willard said. “It’s a good first step. I mean, we have a lot more steps that we need to take as a program, and we will get there. But like I said, if you had told me I would be playing in the second round inheriting five guys on the roster, I would have told you you’re nuts.”
Maryland did not make monumental noise this postseason, but its trajectory points to a positive future.
This year’s dance provided plenty of bedlam leading up to Saturday’s final game between the Terps and the Crimson Tide. Two No. 1 seeds had already been sent home packing, with Big Ten champion Purdue falling to minuscule 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson and reigning national champ Kansas falling to Arkansas in the second round.
Could the Terps, playing with house money against the tournament’s top squad in their home state, throw another force on top of the heap of already-crumbled Goliaths?
Maryland answered the bell of whether it could compete early, making its first four shots and jumping out to a 9-2 lead. Reese scored four points and blocked a shot, but was forced to check out after picking up his second foul less than three minutes into the game. The Terps’ success is often dependent on whether Reese can stay on the floor, which he wasn’t able to do early.
“The second call was a terrible foul call,” Willard said. “And you can’t take a best player out of the game when the game was physical as it was, and it was a horrible call. It changed our whole game plan. We were going to pound it inside, pound it inside. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last two months of the season. We’ve played through Julian. We’ve played at the high post through Julian. We play down low through Julian. He draws fouls. He draws double teams.”
The Crimson Tide and the Terps then went on simultaneous five-minute scoring droughts, with no points scored from the 14:14 mark until nine minutes and 25 seconds remaining until halftime. A muck-it-up style of play undoubtedly favored Maryland — Alabama has the fifth-fastest average offensive possession length in the country, while Maryland has the second-slowest average defensive possession length nationally — but it could only last so long.
Reese came back in the game at the under-12 media timeout to try and spark a stagnant Maryland offense, Instead, he picked up his third foul with 8:50 remaining in the half.
Despite the lack of a track meet, Alabama started to get going on both ends. The Tide grabbed a 21-17 lead with about four minutes left in the half, forcing a Maryland timeout after it made just two of its prior 15 shots. Maryland missed its next five shots but sunk its last two of the half.
The Terps shot 30.8% in the first frame, but their defensive intensity allowed them to go into halftime with just a five-point deficit at 28-23.
Maryland withheld Alabama punches to start the second half, but the Crimson Tide’s personnel started to overpower all. Miller — one of the best players in the entire nation — started heating up with two 3-pointers to extend Alabama’s lead to 40-30 by the under-16 media timeout.
Back on the floor for the first eight minutes of the half, Reese made an impact with five points. He picked up his fourth foul — an unnecessary one — with a little over 12 minutes to play, forcing him back to the bench in a nine-point game.
Maryland’s defensive intensity kept it somewhat afloat, but it was more of the same on the other side of the floor. Alabama extended its lead to as high as 17 points with 8:48 to play, and the result was wrapped up despite Maryland’s best efforts.
Alabama guard Jahvon Quinerly, who tormented Maryland with 14 points and 11 assists in Alabama’s win over Maryland in the 2021 round of 32, finished with a game-high 22 points.
The Terps made 39.3% of their second-half shots, better than their first-half mark, but not enough to fight until the end in a game of this caliber.
Young, Maryland’s best player all season long, checked out with about two minutes remaining. He shared a quick, likely appreciative chat with Willard before embracing his teammates and returning to a somber Maryland bench.
“Really just reflecting on the year,” an emotional Young said of the moment. “I feel like we had a great year and just proud of this group overall, so just reflect on it. It was a lot of emotions at the time, but I was really just reflecting on the moment and the year that we’ve had.”
Three things to know
1. Reese in foul trouble. It is hard not to wonder how different the game would have been had Reese played the majority of the first half. Maryland outscored Alabama by six with Reese on the floor in his four first-half minutes; the Crimson Tide outscored the Terps by 11 in the frame with Reese out.
“Early in the year I had the same issues on foul trouble,” Reese said. “The mindset I try to go into when I’m in the game is keep the same energy. Don’t lose any focus or don’t get down on myself and keep playing my game. And I feel like if I don’t shy away from contact or physicality then I’ll be good. I feel like when I get fouls, I got to keep the same physicality and just keep playing. I understand that just comes with it. And just leaves some plays alone. Like over-the-back call and like, just don’t gamble, don’t swipe down on some things. Just got to learn from that and build on.”
2. Lack of offense. Maryland did not generate anywhere close to what it needed to knock off the Crimson Tide. It needed its best players to be at their best all at once — which has been seen several times — but that would be quite the challenge against a daunting Alabama team. Maryland, which has not been afraid to let it fly throughout the season, attempted just eight 3-pointers, which is questionable when trying to land a major upset.
3. Maryland kept the game at its pace but did not capitalize. The Terps needed to keep Saturday’s game somewhat low-scoring to have a chance at the upset. Alabama came in averaging 81.9 points per game; the Terps surpassed that mark just three times against high-major opponents. Alabama was held nearly nine points below its average, a positive aspect in a game plan that did not fully click.
“To be honest with you, I think you’re going to have to play that way to beat them,” Willard said.