COLLEGE PARK — After sophomore Julian Reese was held to seven points in Maryland men’s basketball’s season opener against Niagara, first-year coach Kevin Willard’s confidence in the former St. Frances standout didn’t waver.
Since Willard came to College Park eight months ago, he has been Reese’s biggest supporter, believing that the 6-foot-9 forward can be the dominant post player Maryland badly needs.
In Thursday night’s game against Western Carolina, Willard’s faith paid off.
Reese scored a career-high 19 points on 7-for-9 shooting and added 12 rebounds to lead the Terps to a 71-51 win over the Catamounts at Xfinity Center. Reese took advantage of Western Carolina’s lack of size from the jump, recording 10 points and four rebounds in the first half en route to his first career double-double.
Reese’s best moment came in the middle of the second half. With 9:15 remaining, he set a screen at halfcourt that allowed guard Jahari Long to dribble towards the basket before receiving a pass inside for a layup and drawing a foul.
The Terps made five baskets during a 13-3 run that gave them a 59-31 lead with eight minutes left in regulation.
“This is the Julian I see everyday in practice,” said Willard, who attributed Reese’s struggles on Monday to first-game jitters. “But what I saw today was a kid who accepted my challenge and wanted to be dominant. You’re just seeing a sliver of how good he can be.”
Against Niagara, Willard wanted Reese to be a bigger presence on both ends of the floor. The young forward was much more active Thursday, hustling and making plays on defense to give himself a confidence boost.
“Things that don’t show up on the stat sheet got me going and I was able to score more,” said the soft-spoken Reese, who goes by JuJu.
Transfer guard Jahmir Young added 16 points and five rebounds after missing five of his first seven shots. Senior guard Hakim Hart scored 10 points while senior forward Donta Scott registered seven points and six rebounds as the Terps shot 44.3% from the field. But on a night when Maryland improved to 2-0, Reese was the shining star.
“[Reese] was special,” Young said. “We really followed him tonight. He was doing all the little things and we made sure to give him touches. He was aggressive.”
Reese’s stellar performance coupled with Maryland’s lockdown defense overshadowed poor outside shooting.
The Terps shot just 2-for-19 from the 3-point line, but they made it hard for the Catamounts (0-2) to generate any offensive rhythm. Maryland held Western Carolina to 15 points in the first half, the fewest by any Terps opponent since 2014, while forcing 17 turnovers.
Western Carolina struggled to make a basket from anywhere on the floor, shooting 27% overall and 7-for-28 from deep while scoring just 20 points in the paint. When Willard went to his bench late in the game, Western Carolina’s offense finally came alive, going on a 14-1 run in the final three minutes.
The first half was far from an offensive showcase. After Maryland jumped out to a commanding 20-10 lead with nine minutes left, the Terps limped through a rough stretch that included three turnovers in four minutes, including a pair of bad passes from Scott and junior guard Ian Martinez.
Maryland missed eight of 10 shots while shooting a dreadful 0-for-8 from the 3-point line. Redshirt freshman Ike Cornish checked into the game with seven minutes left in the half and missed a pair of outside shots.
“They’ve never practiced this long [or] played this hard,” Willard said. “[But] if they are playing this hard, I’m going to let them keep firing. They gotta learn how to make buckets when they are tired.”
Fortunately for the Terps, Western Carolina wasn’t any better offensively. The Catamounts shot just 1-for-12 from the field and were held scoreless for nearly five minutes.
The Terps’ defense kept Western Carolina in check long enough to make a run in the final minutes. Young scored five consecutive points before Hart converted back-to-back layups in transition to give Maryland a 32-15 lead at halftime.
“We missed our first 10 threes and our defensive intensity got better,” Willard said. “That’s rare. [When] you miss 10 threes, a lot of teams would back in. We got better and that’s why we went on a run in the last three minutes of the half.”
In the second half, Maryland’s offense began to settle in while the defense continued to shut down the Catamounts at the other end. Scott, who was held scoreless in the first half, shook the rim when he caught a lob from Martinez for a two-handed dunk that gave the Terps a 30-point advantage with under seven minutes left.
“They understand what we need to do and what we’re trying to do,” Willard said. “I’m having fun just watching them; I’m not even calling plays because they are playing so hard together. To be this connected defensively is really good.”
Binghamton at Maryland
Tuesday, 7 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 105.7 FM