COLLEGE PARK — Kevin Willard was encouraged by what he saw from his team Sunday.
No, not by how the Terps played in the final five minutes at Penn State, as they blew an 11-point lead to lose in heartbreaking fashion.
“That’s probably the worst loss I’ve had as a head coach,” Willard, who is in his 16th season as an NCAA Division I head coach and first at Maryland, said Tuesday.
Instead, Willard liked the way his players reacted to losing — with a level of frustration equal to the magnitude of the defeat.
“I’ll be honest. I loved how disappointed we were after the game,” Willard said. “It was very emotional. There was guys yelling at each other, guys yelling at me. I love that. Their heart was into it, they wanted it, they know what was at stake. I think when you have that much buy-in and kids care that much, that’s a good thing, it’s not a bad thing.”
The loss was a missed opportunity for the Maryland men’s basketball team to earn a top-four seed and a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament, which begins Wednesday. Now, the Terps are the No. 6 seed and play Thursday night to earn a spot in the quarterfinals. To claim the conference crown, Maryland will have to win four straight games.
“Sometimes those feelings after a loss, they just build up and boil over,” sophomore forward Julian Reese said. “We understand this is a family, we stay together, we let that happen. We let everybody express how they feel, and then we just get back into the lab and get to work.”
To have a strong showing at the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago, the Terps will have to move past their two road defeats during the past week — the first at Ohio State last Wednesday before the 65-64 loss to Penn State. Willard isn’t concerned about his team — with four seniors in the starting lineup — being able to bounce back, noting how the Terps went 8-4 after losing by 35 points to Michigan in early January.
Despite the sour end to the regular season, Willard still called his first year with Maryland “a huge success.”
“I’m proud of this basketball team,” he said. “Like Sunday was tough, but that’s the great thing about conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament: It’s a whole new year. For this team to go 11-9 and come in sixth with — if we had played a little bit better on the road — a realistic shot to win the Big Ten … if you would’ve told me that at the beginning of the year, that’s the scenario you’re going to have, I would’ve taken it from day one.”
As the No. 6 seed in the tournament, Maryland (20-11 overall, 11-9 Big Ten) will play the winner of No. 11 seed Nebraska (16-15, 9-11) and No. 14 seed Minnesota (8-21, 2-17) in the second round Thursday at approximately 9 p.m. If the Terps win, they’d play No. 3 seed Indiana in the quarterfinals Friday, also at about 9 p.m.
The Terps split their two matchups against the Cornhuskers — winning at Xfinity Center, where Maryland went undefeated in Big Ten play, and losing in overtime on the road. The loss at Nebraska was nothing new for Maryland, as the Terps went just 1-9 on the road against Big Ten foes this season. That lone win, however, was against Minnesota, as Maryland defeated the Golden Gophers both on the road and in College Park.
“The experience on this team understands that it happened this past week, but our future’s in front of us,” graduate transfer guard Don Carey said. “Just trying to lock in on the game to try to win the championship is the most important thing for this team right now.”
Carey, an Upper Marlboro native, is the only player on the Terps’ roster with experience winning a conference championship. Two years ago, he helped lead Georgetown to an improbable Big East title, as the Hoyas were the No. 8 seed after finishing below .500 in the regular season.
Carey, who has scored in double figures in four straight games, said he sees similarities between the Terps and that Georgetown team.
“It’s been ups and downs throughout the whole season, but this group kind of stays together through it all,” Carey said. “We tried to just battle through adversity, which we did and got better from it. Moving forward, it’s really mental at this point. It’s just locking in on the scouting report and then how we need to come out and attack the other teams.”
Carey isn’t the only Terp who is entering the tournament playing perhaps his best basketball of the season. Graduate transfer guard Jahmir Young, who was named second-team All-Big Ten on Tuesday after leading Maryland with 16.3 points per game, scored 26 on 9 of 17 shooting in the Penn State loss. And Reese, a St. Frances alumnus, has scored in double figures in 10 straight games with four double-doubles in the past five contests.
However, there is one notable player who is struggling, especially on the offensive side of the court. Donta Scott scored just one point on 0 of 5 shooting in the loss to Penn State — only the second time in his four-year career at Maryland scoring fewer than two points. Scott has scored in single digits in five of his past seven games, averaging 8.3 points per contest over that stretch.
“I don’t think people give Donta enough credit for what he does for us on the defensive end,” Willard said. “I think [Scott] is a little worn out. … I just think I need to do a better job of just getting him a little bit of a break here and then. Again, I don’t like not having him on the floor, so it’s a little bit of my fault. I feel when he’s out there he does good things, even though he’s struggling to score right now.”
Big Ten Tournament second round
No. 6 seed Maryland vs. No. 11 Nebraska/No. 14 Minnesota
Thursday, approx. 9 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network