COLLEGE PARK — In its first game under coach Kevin Willard, Maryland men’s basketball defeated Niagara, 71-49, on Monday night.
The small crowd scattered across the Xfinity Center received its first glimpse of a team that’s meant to usher in a new era for the program. In the first 20 minutes, it was evident there’s still a lot of work to do.
The Terps looked every bit like a team that added six new players as transfer guards Jahmir Young (Charlotte) and Don Carey (Georgetown) failed to find a rhythm, combining to shoot 1-for-5 in the first half. While Young struggled to find his shot, he did showcase his ability to get to the free-throw line, shooting 3-for-4 from the stripe to finish with 14 points.
Offensively, the Terps relied heavily on Donta Scott, one of their longest-tenured players. The senior forward looked much more nimble after losing 30 pounds during the offseason, scoring from the outside and in the post to total a team-high 18 points on 7-for-13 shooting. Senior guard Hakim Hart scored seven of his nine points in the first half and added two rebounds and three assists.
“It was a great feeling,” Willard said of his first win at Maryland after 11 seasons at Seton Hall. “It’s been a crazy seven months to put together this roster and get these guys playing. To get them playing as hard as they are playing, I’m proud of these guys.”
Before the season, Willard said he wanted Maryland to be a better 3-point shooting team after the Terps made just 32.6% from beyond the arc last season. They shot the ball well against the Purple Eagles, finishing 9-for-20 (45%) from 3-point range and 25-for-51 from the field (49%). Scott looked like the player that shot 43.8% on 3-pointers as a sophomore, as the Philadelphia native went 4-for-5 from deep. His pair of threes in the middle of the second half helped give the Terps a 58-43 advantage.
“[Scott] is going to be an 18 [points] and 10 [rebounds] guy,” Willard said. “Thirty-five minutes is way too many minutes for him in his first game, but he’s earned it.”
Maryland’s defense had an up-and-down start. The Terps were particularly feisty on the perimeter, limiting Niagara to 0-for-6 from 3-point range, the first time they held an opponent without a three since Nov. 24, 2017, against St. Bonaventure. Their full-court pressure began to wear down the Purple Eagles, who committed 12 turnovers.
“It made [Niagara] speed up,” Scott said. “Once they get over halfcourt, they don’t have enough time to run their offense. I kind of like it, even though you get tired.”
Willard called Maryland’s full-court pressure a work in progress, noting that the team will have to go through some growing pains to get it right. He was pleased with the guard pressure at the top but said “it’s the second- and third-line guys that are really struggling with what to do once we drop back. That’s something that we have to work on.”
Junior guard Ian Martinez has the potential to thrive as a defender under Willard and showed it Monday night, as he totaled five of the team’s nine steals. With Maryland clinging to a four-point lead early in the second half, Martinez came from behind to steal the ball, leading to a layup by Young on the other end.
Maryland ran an eight- to nine-player rotation with Martinez leading the way in minutes off the bench with 16.
“[Martinez] gives us a little bit of energy,” Scott said. “Seeing him get after it and get deflections, makes us wonder if we are playing to the expectations that he’s playing.”
Said Young: “He plays so hard. We feed off his energy.”
The Terps’ interior defense was the most alarming development of the night. Niagara outscored Maryland 34-26 in the paint while collecting 13 offensive rebounds. Sophomore forward Julian Reese (St. Frances), who finished with seven points and seven rebounds, struggled against Niagara’s big men and got into foul trouble.
After routinely starting slow last season under Mark Turgeon and interim coach Danny Manning, the Terps jumped out to an 18-8 lead in the first 6:26 when transfer guard Jahari Long (Seton Hall) stole the ball, leading to a layup by Scott off an assist from Hart.
But the Terps went cold offensively and struggled to defend inside, which allowed Niagara to score in the paint and cut the lead to 39-35 with 15:17 to go in the second half. Maryland scored just 10 points in the final 12 minutes of the first half.
“I have to figure out my secondary rotation,” Willard said. “We were in a really good offensive rhythm and then I put two lineups together that haven’t practiced together, and that was evident.”
Maryland, as expected, began to pull away down the stretch. Young converted back-to-back second-chance layups to jump-start a 9-0 run that gave the Terps a 48-35 advantage with 11:43 remaining. Carey hit a jumper from the top of the key to push the lead to 60-43 with 4:39 left, helping Maryland secure its 46th straight home-opening victory dating to the 1977-78 season.
Western Carolina at Maryland
Thursday, 7 p.m.
Radio: 105.7 FM