Maryland is enduring everything March has to offer — and lives to play again


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Fate in March can be fickle. Maryland point guard Jahmir Young made his first seven free throws Thursday. His eighth — 4.7 seconds left and the Terrapins two points clear in their NCAA men’s first-round tournament game against West Virginia — trickled around the rim and fell away.

So here came Mountaineers guard Kedrian Johnson, futures in the balance. From right next to the massive “March Madness” logo on Center Court at Legacy Arena, Johnson let it fly. No way was it a high proof shot. By any definition it was ulcerative.

“If you can give up a one-foot runner at the end of the game,” said Maryland coach Kevin Willard, “you will take it.”

Except sometimes these one-foot runners — even from 30 feet — go in. That’s why fingernails fray, stomachs turn, why does the TV stay on no matter who’s playing. One-Own College Basketball Games in March When the Clock Runs Out? Yes, please.

And yet it is all so fragile for players and coaches. The idea that seasons can be counted as a success or failure based on whether a last-second shot hits iron or net borders on insane. That moment when the ball leaves your hand one last time – the air is sucked out of the building. For one side, this will result in a long, smooth flight home. For the other, it will result in a thorough scouting of Alabama before a satisfying meal.

“Once the ball’s in the air,” Young said, “you pray it doesn’t go in.”

It didn’t, and the first survivor in a tournament defined by survival was Maryland, a 67-65 winner in Willard’s first NCAA tournament game at his new job.

“That’s what you’ve been working for since the beginning of the summer,” senior forward Hakim Hart said.

That would have been true no matter where Johnson’s shot landed. But somehow the season in Maryland feels different because it was canceled.

Here’s a list of things that happened to the Terrapins on Thursday: They remained scoreless for 7 minutes and 39 seconds in the first half. Their offense alternated between ugly and cruel, and they fell back by 13. Halfway through the period they had six points. Young picked up his fourth foul with just 13 minutes left in the game. West Virginia capitalized on a 13-0 run on four possessions — back-to-back and ones from Johnson, a four-point game from Johnson and another three-point game — to close a seven-point deficit in the second half to convert an eight-point lead in a full two and a half minutes.

Throughout all of this, Willard remained completely on business. This is the full experience of the 2022-23 Terrapins, where basketball that is beautiful and basketball that is hard to watch can be included in the verses between TV timeouts. Because of this, the Terps could have six direct possessions going like this — Turnover, Turnover, Turnover, Hart Miss, Turnover, Turnover — and Willard was able to rally his team to the group and say, “We only lost nine and we have four Points? This is a celebration in the streets.”

He was only half joking. The Terrapins went 16-1 at College Park this season and 5-11 everywhere else. Willard never seems put off by this. Though the terps are unusually even — all five starters scored between nine and 17 points Thursday — Young is unquestionably their most important player because their offense has a hard time getting off the ground when he can’t.

He definitely couldn’t do it against the long, strong Mountaineers.

“They just made us question a couple of passes,” Young said. “You have a few distractions and things like that. We just had to drive a little slower. We were excited. I have a feeling we had some nerve.”

Young started Thursday after playing 118 combined collegiate games in Charlotte and Maryland. None had been in the NCAA tournament. When Young coughed the ball and West Virginia took a 16-4 lead, Willard wanted Young to join him on the bench.

“Today was like a boxing match,” Willard said. “He’s been hit a few times. And I think it just relaxed him. He could see it.”

Two wins in March can change a coach’s reputation. How crazy is that?

Now Young and the Terps have seen and felt it. They know they can stabilize even after a lazy start and instead of being pushed out of the tournament almost before the start of the tournament, they were leading 32-30 at halftime. They know they can absorb the kind of microwave power offered by Johnson and are responding. They know that if their opponent is late – West Virginia led 59-56 with five minutes to go – they can fall back on their defense, which then forced possession of five scoreless Mountaineers in a row.

You may not be able to beat Alabama. But they won’t buckle.

“You’re getting down, you don’t want to get down on yourself,” senior forward Donta Scott said. “By that time is fight time.”

The terps can fight – individually and collectively. It takes a village to survive, especially for Maryland. When Young drew his fourth foul, the Terps were six behind. When he returned to the line-up just over six minutes later, it was a tie. Scott buried the three-pointer that tied him at 59. Julian Reese, who has blossomed over the past six weeks, produced a dominant stretch where he locked in the loose ball which Hart converted into the go-ahead bucket. Young hit two late free throws.

And yet, when that final free throw rolled around the edge and fell sideways, hearts went into throats.

“One has to hope,” Willard said.

2023 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament

As Johnson got up, Young was standing at the three-point arch, palms out, in a terrified pose. Johnson had made four threes and scored 27 points. Why not three more?

“Every shot I took today,” Johnson said, “I thought he had a chance to get in.”

It definitely had a chance.

“He’s an inch from winning the game for us,” said West Virginia Hall of Fame coach Bob Huggins. “It was dead online. It was dead on the line.”

Instead, the ball bounced harmlessly to the ground. Young turned to his bench and jumped. Willard raised both palms for a passing Don Carey to smack them. And then he strode down the sidelines to shake hands with Huggins to hug the gritty Johnson. Maryland’s fate meets Alabama on Saturday. You had to endure everything March has to offer to get this opportunity. Maryland is enduring everything March has to offer — and lives to play again

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