The Washington Post
Terps men shake off slow start, hold off Mountaineers late to set up game with top-seeded Tide
The Maryland men’s basketball team first had to claw back from a disastrous start. And even after the Terrapins managed to do so, they faced another uphill climb after West Virginia generated a barrage of scoring in the opening minutes of the second half. Each time in this NCAA tournament first-round game, they responded.
The eighth-seeded Terps are familiar with navigating deficits, but this time, facing elimination, they also needed to close. That’s where this team has struggled this season, especially away from Xfinity Center. But against No. 9 seed West Virginia at Legacy Arena, Maryland held on for a 67-65 victory to advance to the second round in the South Region — a significant accomplishment for first-year Maryland coach Kevin Willard.
During a timeout with 3:30 remaining, the Terps had just a two-point edge. Willard talked with his team about avoiding “self-inflicted wounds” — the type of late mistakes that have occasionally cost the Terps this season. From there until the final buzzer, Maryland stayed poised and never let the Mountaineers take a lead.
When the Terps had a three-point advantage with 38 seconds to go, senior Donta Scott missed a shot but tracked down the offensive rebound — a “huge” play, Willard said, both because of the hustle and how it helped drain the clock to “shorten the game.” The Terps didn’t score on that possession, but West Virginia’s hopes dwindled as seconds ticked away.
Tre Mitchell made a layup to trim Maryland’s lead to one point with 8.4 seconds remaining. But then Hakim Hart successfully got the ball inbounds to Terps point guard Jahmir Young, and the Mountaineers fouled as Young struggled to get out of the trap.
Young, the team’s most dependable free throw shooter, made just 1 of 2 foul shots with 4.7 seconds remaining, leaving the Terps, who had a two-point lead, susceptible for an upset at the buzzer. But Kedrian Johnson, whose secondhalf surge fueled the Mountaineers, missed a three-pointer in the game’s final moment.
“I’m more excited for the kids than I am for me,” Willard said. “This group, they have come together. . . . We have been down all year at certain points in the game. They have never turned on each other.”
In Saturday’s second round, Maryland will face top-seeded Alabama, which routed No. 16 seed Texas A&M Corpus Christi, 96-75. For Maryland, a tournament exit seemed imminent after its dreadful start against the Mountaineers, but now the Terps have a chance to knock off one of the nation’s top teams for what would be a monumental achievement in Willard’s debut season. Since 2003, the year after Maryland won a national title, the Terps have reached the Sweet 16 just once (in 2016).
Julian Reese, the sophomore forward who has improved significantly as this season has progressed, turned into a force for the Terps in the second half. He scored 13 of his 17 points after the break, and he added nine rebounds. West Virginia’s Jimmy Bell Jr., a 6-foot10 forward, fouled out with 10:16 remaining, and Reese capitalized.
“If you guys didn’t know Juju Reese, now you do,” Maryland backup forward Patrick Emilien said. “He’s a big-time player, and everybody trusts in him and believes in him.”
Young’s NCAA tournament debut had a rocky start with six turnovers and just 10 points. He picked up his fourth foul with 13:20 to go, and Willard kept his leading scorer on the bench for the next six minutes. With Young out of the game, Reese carried the load offensively. By the time Young returned with 7:14 remaining, the Terps had erased their deficit and had the game tied at 54.
Young made 3 of 4 free throws in the final two minutes to help Maryland maintain its cushion. Fellow guard Don Carey said he commended Young after the game for his mental toughness to make those foul shots after his extended stretch on the bench.
The Terps trailed by nine points with about 15 minutes remaining. West Virginia had surged ahead, starting when Johnson, a fifthyear guard, scored 10 straight points on three possessions. Johnson hit three shots, drew a foul on each and made the ensuing free throws. Sophomore guard Seth Wilson then knocked down a three-pointer, and Johnson added another shot from deep to give the Mountaineers a 16-0 run.
That burst forced the Terps to climb back again — just as they had in the first half.
“When we go down,” Scott said, “I feel like we just had that dog in us and turn our sensors on and just go in attack mode.”
Maryland had a nervy start, and the Mountaineers flustered the Terps with their physicality. Maryland had to weather an extended early slump. The Terps went more than seven minutes without scoring, and during that stretch, they had six turnovers, five missed shots and two missed free throws. The Terps’ offense looked out of sorts.
Willard joked, referencing his team’s slow starts on the road this season: “We’re only down nine. We have four points. That’s average!”
Maryland is used to trailing. Willard’s players are comfortable in that position. And after West Virginia dominated early and built a 13-point lead in the first half, the Terps responded.
“We know in the NCAA tournament the game means so much,” Carey said. “You can just play tight a little bit. I think once we loosened up and started playing our style of basketball, everything kind of freed up for us.”
Willard, previously the coach at Seton Hall for 12 years, arrived at Maryland with a 1-5 record in NCAA tournament games. Only once did his team advance to the second round. Willard’s history in March Madness was the primary blemish on his résumé. But now he has a positive start to his Maryland tenure, even with this team that didn’t enter the season expected to reach this stage.