BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Coach Kevin Willard guided the Maryland men’s basketball team back to the NCAA Tournament. The players repaid the favor by giving Willard his first NCAA postseason win in more than five years.
The No. 8 seed Terps used double-digit scoring from three starters, including a team-high 17 points, nine rebounds, three assists and three steals by sophomore power forward Julian Reese, to propel themselves to a 67-65 victory over No. 9 seed West Virginia in a first-round game Thursday afternoon at Legacy Arena.
After graduate student point guard Jahmir Young made one of two free throws with 4.7 seconds remaining, West Virginia’s Kedrian Johnson’s would-be game-winning 3-point shot in the final second was off the mark.
The win sends Maryland (22-12) to its third second-round appearance in the last four seasons in which the NCAA Tournament has been run. (The 2020 postseason was canceled by the coronavirus pandemic.)
The victory also gave Willard only his second in the NCAA Tournament and his first since the 2017-18 campaign, when he led Seton Hall, also a No. 8 seed at the time, to a 94-83 win against No. 9 seed North Carolina State on March 15.
The Terps will meet No. 1 seed and Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament champion Alabama (29-5), which cruised to a 96-75 win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (23-10), on Saturday at approximately 9:40 p.m. The Terps are 2-3 overall against top seeds in the NCAA Tournament with the last meeting occurring March 24, 2016, when that squad was defeated by Kansas, 79-63, in the Sweet 16.
Maryland prevailed Thursday despite trailing by 12 points midway through the first half and nine points within the first five minutes in the second. That’s when a veteran corps that included senior small forward Donta Scott and graduate student shooting guard Don Carey began to show its mettle.
“I just told my team, ‘Just keep fighting,’” Scott said. “You get down, you don’t want to get down on yourselves. At that time, it’s battle time.”
Willard quipped that they were fortunate they weren’t down by 20 points.
“We’ve gotten off to slow starts on the road,” he said. “But when you look up and you have six turnovers and it’s only 13-4, there’s reason to be excited. I’m a guy who looks at everything in a positive way. So I told the guys, ‘Guys, it’s 13-4, we have six turnovers. If that’s the best they can do, then I think we’re in pretty good shape.’”
Trailing 16-4 with 11:07 left in the first half, the Terps outscored West Virginia, 28-14, for the remainder of the period to carry a 32-30 lead into halftime. After digging themselves into a 47-38 hole with 15:05 left in the second half, they outscored the Mountaineers, 29-18, to secure the victory.
The last minute was an exercise in nerves for Maryland, which clung to a 66-63 lead. Scott rebounded his own miss with 38 seconds remaining, but Young was called for traveling about nine seconds later.
Senior power forward Tre Mitchell scored a layup to draw West Virginia within one at 66-65 with 8.4 seconds left and then fouled Young with 4.7 seconds remaining. Young converted his first free throw but missed his second, and Johnson’s desperation shot from about five feet beyond the arc missed the mark.
Reese, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound Baltimore native and St. Frances graduate, scored 13 of his points in the second half and collected seven rebounds, two assists and two blocks in the same stretch. He benefited from the absence of 6-10, 285-pound junior power forward Jimmy Bell Jr., who fouled out with 10:16 left in the second half.
“I had a smaller guy on me,” Reese said. “Bell was such a force down low, and I felt like we took advantage of that well in the second half.”
In addition to Reese’s outing, the Terps got 15 points, four assists, three rebounds and two assists from senior shooting guard Hakim Hart, 11 points, eight rebounds and two steals from Scott and 10 points, three rebounds and three assists from Young.
Johnson was brilliant for the Mountaineers (19-15). Neither Young nor junior shooting guard Ian Martinez nor Hart could contain the fifth-year senior point guard, who scored a game-high 27 points on 8 of 13 shooting, including 4 of 8 from 3-point range.
Johnson opened the second half by scoring 10 points in a row and 13 of the Mountaineers’ 16 to give them a 47-38 advantage with 15:05 left. But he scored only four points for the rest of the game as Maryland’s defense concentrated on stopping him.
“Not saying we weren’t paying him too much attention, but he hasn’t been one of their main scorers in the past,” Young said. “So once he started to get going, [we made] him more of a focus.”
In addition to Johnson, Mitchell finished with 13 points, six rebounds and two steals. Fifth-year senior shooting guard Erik Stevenson, West Virginia’s leading scorer at 15.5 points per game, scored nine, but missed 13 of 17 shots. Hall of Fame coach Bob Huggins noted that the loss of Bell and 6-7, 210-pound fifth-year senior power forward Emmitt Matthews Jr. (left shoulder) proved too much against the Terps’ interior size.
“They started backing us in,” he said. “We didn’t match up very well with them when they started backing us in.”
Maryland has won its past three opening-round games and 15 of its last 16. The lone hiccup in that run occurred in 2017.
The Terps’ victory continued what had been a year of revival. After a 2021-22 season in which coach Mark Turgeon suddenly decided to step down on Dec. 3, 2021, and that squad limped to a 15-17 campaign, they helped Willard become the first coach in program history to guide a team to the NCAA Tournament in his debut season.
The beginning might have foretold the ending. After the Terps took a 4-2 lead on back-to-back layups by Hart and Scott with 18:21 left in the first half, the Mountaineers reeled off 14 straight points to assume a 16-4 advantage with 11:07 remaining.
When Young converted a pair of free throws, he ended a drought of 7:39 for Maryland that included six turnovers.
Young’s free throws, in turn, ignited the Terps’ own 18-3 burst capped by his only 3-pointer of the period. That bucket gave Maryland a 22-21 lead, the team’s first since that 4-2 opening.
West Virginia replied with five straight points, but the Terps closed out the final 4:03 of the first half on a 10-4 spurt fueled by four points from Scott. Graduate student power forward Patrick Emilien’s fadeaway jumper with 34 seconds left just before the shot clock expired sent Maryland into halftime with a fragile 32-30 lead.
In that opening frame, the Terps shot 57.9% from the field (11 of 19) compared to just 39.3% (11 of 28) for the Mountaineers. Although 10 of West Virginia’s 16 rebounds came off the offensive glass and contributed to seven second-chance points, Maryland enjoyed slight edges in points in the paint (16-12) and points off turnovers (11-9).
NCAA Tournament second round
No. 8 seed Maryland vs. No. 1 seed Alabama
at Birmingham, Alabama
Saturday, approx. 9:40 p.m.
Radio: 105.7 FM