Maryland beats West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — The Maryland men’s basketball team first had to recover from a disastrous start. And even after the Terrapins managed to do that, they faced another surge after West Virginia scored a barrage of goals in the opening minutes of the second half. Every time in that first-round game of the NCAA tournament, they reacted.

Eighth-seeded Terps are familiar with navigational deficits, but this time they also had to close before elimination. That’s where this team has struggled this season, especially away from the Xfinity Center. But against No. 9 West Virginia at Legacy Arena, Maryland held on to a 67-65 win to advance to the second round in the South region — a significant feat for Maryland first-year coach Kevin Willard.

During a timeout with 3:30 remaining, the Terps only had a two-point lead. Willard spoke with his team about avoiding “self-inflicted wounds” — the kind of late mistakes that have occasionally cost the terps. From there, Maryland stayed composed until the final buzzer, never letting the Mountaineers take the lead.

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As the Terps held a three-point lead with 38 seconds remaining, elder forward Donta Scott missed a shot but tracked down the offensive rebound — a “big” play, Willard said, both for the rush and the fact how it helped drain the clock to “shorten the game”. The Terps didn’t score on that possession, but West Virginia’s hopes faded as seconds ticked by.

Tre Mitchell made a layup to cut Maryland’s lead to one point with 8.4 seconds remaining. But then Hakim Hart successfully got the ball to Terp’s point guard Jahmir Young, and the Mountaineers fouled as Young struggled to get out of the trap.

Young, the team’s most reliable free-throw taker, made just 1 of 2 foul shots with 4.7 seconds left, leaving the Terps, who had a two-point lead, vulnerable to a buzzer-beater. But Kedrian Johnson, whose second-half surge fueled the Mountaineers, missed a three-pointer in the last moment of the game.

“I’m more excited for the kids than I am,” Willard said. “This group, they came together. … We’ve been down at certain points in the game all year. They never turned against each other.”

In the second round on Saturday, Maryland meets top seed Alabama, who defeated No. 16 Texas A&M Corpus Christi 96-75. For Maryland, elimination from the tournament seemed imminent after its dreadful start against the Mountaineers, but now the Terps have a chance to beat one of the nation’s best teams in a monumental performance in Willard’s debut season. Since 2003, the year after Maryland won a national title, the terps have only made the Sweet 16 once (2016).

Julian Reese, the second forward who has improved significantly over the course of this season, became a force for the Terps in the second half. He scored 13 of his 17 points after the break and added nine rebounds. West Virginia’s Jimmy Bell Jr., a 6-foot-10 forward, fouled with 10:16 left, and Reese capitalized.

“If you haven’t heard of JuJu Reese, do it now,” said Patrick Emilien, Maryland backup forward. “He’s a great player and everyone trusts him and believes in him.”

Young’s NCAA tournament debut got off to a rocky start with six turnovers and just 10 points. With 13:20 left, he conceded his fourth foul and Willard benched his top scorer for the next six minutes. With Young out of the game, Reese carried the load offensively. By the time Young returned with 7-14 to go, the Terps had made up their deficit and the game was tied at 54.

Young made 3 of 4 free throws in the last two minutes to help Maryland maintain its cushion. Fellow guard Don Carey said he praised Young after the game for his mental toughness in making those bad shots after his extended stretch on the bench.

The Terps were nine points behind with around 15 minutes to go. West Virginia had advanced when Johnson, a fifth-year guard, scored 10 straight points on three possessions. Johnson hit three shots – including a three – pulled a foul on each and made the free throws that followed. Sophomore guard Seth Wilson then knocked down a three, and Johnson added another shot from deep to give the Mountaineers a 16-0 run.

This eruption forced the terps to scramble back once again – just like in the first half.

“When we go downstairs,” Scott said, “I feel like we just had this dog inside us and we turn on our sensors and just go into attack mode.”

Maryland got off to a nervous start and the Mountaineers confused the Terps with their physicality. The Terps went more than seven minutes without a goal, and during that stretch they had six turnovers, five missed shots and two missed shots. The Terps’ offense didn’t look good.

Willard joked, citing his team’s slow starts on the road this season: “We’re only nine behind. We have four points. That’s average!”

Maryland is used to chasing. Willard’s players are comfortable in this position. And after West Virginia dominated early and built a 13-point lead in the first half, the Terps responded.

Jahmir Young from Maryland finally gets his chance at March Madness

“We know that play means so much in the NCAA tournament,” Carey said. “You can just play a little tight. I think once we loosened up and started playing our basketball style, everything became free for us.”

Willard, previously a coach at Seton Hall for 12 years, came to Maryland with a 1-5 record in NCAA tournament play. Only once did his team make it into the second round. Willard’s story in March Madness was the major flaw in his resume. But now he’s off to a positive start to his Maryland tenure, even with this team that hasn’t entered the season and is expected to reach that stage. Maryland beats West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament

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