Breath of fresh air for Maryland Basketball after Purdue upset

Thursday night ended the exact type of drought that athletic director Damon Evans looked to stop back when Kevin Willard was hired in the spring.

In a streak that spanned seven seasons, Maryland entered Thursday night 0-11 against AP top-five opponents but heading into Thursday night, that didn’t phase head coach Kevin Willard. Instead, he watched Maryland dominate the final 20 minutes as a 29-4 run stretched the Terps’ lead to as many as 18 points—the largest deficit for Purdue this season.

“I told the team this. Grant Billmeier and I were in early this morning watching film and I said to him, I said ‘there’s no doubt we’re going to win this game.’ I had no doubt,” Willard said following the win. “These kids have worked extremely hard. When we’ve played bad, they’ve had a great attitude. They’ve worked hard every day. We had three good days of practice this week so I knew we were going to win. This was not a surprise.”

Maryland did so with Jahmir Young, once again, leading the way with a game-high 20 points on nearly 50% shooting, including 7-for-7 from the free throw line, as he finished with his 12th consecutive game in double-figures. The veteran guard scored the final seven points in the first half to cut Purdue’s lead to 28-25 heading into halftime, then six of the first eight points of the second half as Maryland responded to Purdue’s fast start. But it would be Young’s last two points during the streak that jumpstarted Maryland’s run after Mason Gillis was called for a technical, sparking a 29-4 run that would all but put the game away.

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“It was definitely like a dream come true. Something that you worked for all summer,” Young said after the win. “You try to prepare yourself. The team, we all just try to work hard and we live for moments like this, live for moments to be in front of the camera when the lights are on. It was really just playing our game, especially just being able to do it at home. It’s just a special moment.”

While fans and analysts sparked the discussion about whether Jahmir Young was a first-team All-Big Ten selection, Young’s performance on Thursday vaulted him to tenth in KenPom’s player of the year standings. Young is one of four players from the Big Ten, joining Zach Edey, Trayce Jackson-Davis and Jalen Pickett, but the addition of the Maryland guard is the latest point of validation as he leads the squad into March.

While fans soak in the validating win, Willard admitted he and the staff have already started Nebraska prep as Maryland hits the road for a Sunday afternoon contest.

“We’ve got five games left, man. Phew. We’ve got Nebraska on Sunday. I’m already there,” he said. “We have a meeting here in hopefully five minutes about going over Nebraska. It really is. This league is, [Purdue] is a team that can win a national championship and Zach [Edey] is probably the best player in college basketball. I want to keep this going.”

While five weeks ago there were questions as to which side of the bubble Maryland fell on, Thursday’s win gave them their third Quad 1 win of the season with the largest true home game attendance in the Big Ten this season soaking in the atmosphere. While Willard keeps his team focused with postseason around the corner, he acknowledged the magnitude of the win for the program.

“This is an unbelievable program. It’s one of the best programs in the country. [I] think it’s important for the fanbase, I think it’s important for the students to kind of just understand what this program is really all about. If you think about what went on last year, these poor kids dealing with COVID and all the BS with that, I think for the students, for the fanbase, I think that was a great environment and a great moment.”

A moment that the players were able to appreciate with the fans.

“I was by the bench, so it was kind of easy-going under the rope,” Reese said as he recalled the court storm. “Everybody was jumping. Somebody was on the backboard.”

While Willard is focused on year one, Thursday’s win was the latest feather in his cap as he begins writing the final pages on his first chapter in College Park. Willard first turned heads after staying true to his word and honing in on local talent, whether it’s Jahmir Young through the portal or Noah Batchelor, Jamie Kaiser, Deshawn Harris-Smith, or Jahnathan Lamothe. When frontcourt recruiting became a glaring long-term concern, the staff plucked IMG Academy seven-footer Braden Pierce. Then on the hardwood, the Terps’ chemistry and efficiency on the defensive end quickly became a talking point as fans watched Willard’s breath of fresh air. After defeating Miami (FL), Saint Louis and Illinois, fans saw the improved efficiency translate to marquee wins.

Thursday’s win, however, proved Willard’s ability to bring the swagger that he referenced in his introductory press conference back to College Park. And with reinforcements on the way, Willard is looking to keep stacking.

“Oh we’re going to sustain this. We’re there. We’ve got the #13 recruiting class in the country. We’ve won some pretty big games. We’ve won on the road, neutral site. I think the biggest thing, again, that group has laid the foundation down. Every recruit that came watch us work, every recruit that watches us practice, every high school coach that comes to watch us practice, they all love it. They all love what we’re doing and it’s one of those things that, Damon [Evans] and I talk about it all the time. This is not a one-year thing. This is a long-term thing.”

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