COLLEGE PARK — On Friday night, No. 22 Maryland men’s basketball showed it’s not wasting any time becoming a Big Ten contender under first-year coach Kevin Willard. The Terps defeated No. 16 Illinois, 71-66, at Xfinity Center, displaying impressive grit and relentlessness in their closest game of the season.
From Illinois coach Brad Underwood’s struggles in College Park to senior guard Hakim Hart becoming a reliable scorer, here are three takeaways from Maryland’s eighth win of the year.
Hakim Hart ‘the most consistent guy’
Hart’s 17-point performance was yet another example of the senior guard becoming Maryland’s most reliable shooter.
Illinois kept leaving Hart wide open, and he took advantage. Hart went 5-for-6 from 3-point range, including some crucial shots in big moments. When the Fighting Illini took a 14-11 lead early in the first half, Hart hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Terps a five-point advantage. With Maryland clinging to a two-point lead in the second half, it was Hart’s 3-pointer that pushed the Terps in front, 62-57, with 6:42 left.
Through eight games, Hart is shooting 60.3% from the field with an offensive rating of 149.9, according to KenPom. He has the highest true shooting percentage of his career at .744 while knocking down 51.9% of his 3-point attempts.
“He’s been the most consistent guy we’ve had,” Willard said. “He’s shooting with confidence.”
Willard only needed three weeks of practice to understand Hart’s potential. “I told him that [he] could be a first- or second-team All-Big Ten player. [He’s] just got to believe in it the way I believe in it,” Willard said.
College Park is no fun for Brad Underwood
It’s safe to say Underwood has yet to figure out how to win inside Xfinity Center.
The Illinois coach is 0-4 in College Park, and the Terps have won five of their last six matchups against the Fighting Illini overall. When Underwood arrived at Xfinity Center as Oklahoma State’s coach in 2016-17, the Terps defeated the Cowboys, 71-70.
Last season, Maryland upset then-No. 17 Illinois, 81-65, as forward Donta Scott scored 25 points off the bench. In 2019-20, guard Anthony Cowan Jr. hit a game-tying 3-pointer in the final 20 seconds and a go-ahead free throw with 2.1 seconds left to lead Maryland to a 59-58 victory over the Fighting Illini.
“This is still the one building I haven’t cracked yet in the Big Ten,” Underwood said.
The sixth-year coach said the atmosphere was electric and emphasized that Maryland’s home games should be like that every night.
“What the hell do Maryland fans want?” Underwood said, criticizing the fan turnout in the Terps’ first four home games, which had an average of 10,623 spectators. “This is a great program.”
On Friday, the Terps had an announced 16,380 fans fill up Xfinity Center and the energy reflected the enormous crowd size.
“It’s a hard place to play,” Underwood said. “[Former Maryland coach Mark Turgeon] had great players, and they are littered all over the NBA. We’ve had great battles, and this is a storied program with a great tradition. That’s as good a college atmosphere as you’re gonna find.”
Maryland continues to play hard
There’s something special brewing in College Park.
On paper, Illinois was the more talented team. Its starting five features two potential first-round NBA draft picks in Coleman Hawkins and Terrence Shannon Jr., and freshman Skyy Clark is a former five-star recruit who originally signed with Kentucky.
But to pull off a dramatic win in Willard’s introduction to conference play, Maryland played with a special kind of toughness that’s not measured on a stat sheet.
Illinois received a glimpse of it in the first half. Maryland surprised the Fighting Illini with its full-court pressure and ability to get out in transition.
The Terps forced turnovers and fought for loose balls to keep plays alive. With less than a minute to go in the first half, sophomore forward Julian Reese saved the ball from going out of bounds before transfer guard Jahmir Young buried a 3-pointer to give Maryland a 41-34 lead.
Underwood praised Willard after the game, but he isn’t the only coach that has admired the former Seton Hall leader’s ability to inspire the Terps.
“Every opposing coach has called me and been like, ‘How did you get your kids to play this hard?’” Willard said.
Before the season, Scott alluded to the type of toughness and energy the Terps were going to bring: “[We will] be the team that always makes you say, ‘Why am I so tired, and they are not?’”
Willard’s secret ingredient to getting the Terps playing at a high level has been confidence. When he played basketball at Pittsburgh, he called himself a “miserable player” because he didn’t have confidence in his ability to shoot the ball. As a coach, Willard has instilled a fearless attitude into his players, and that has been key to their early-season success.
“I tell all my guys that if you play hard on the defensive end, you could take any shot and do whatever you want on the offensive end,” he said. “I’ve never taken anybody out for taking a shot. I’ve never taken anybody out for a turnover or a play. They have total freedom.”
No. 22 Maryland at Wisconsin
Tuesday, 9 p.m.
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