In the opening round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament, No. 8 seed Maryland took on its border-rival and No. 9 seed West Virginia on Thursday afternoon.
The Terps – who trailed by as many as 13 – used a second-half comeback effort to knock off the Mountaineers, 67-65.
“I’m more excited for the kids than I am for me,” Maryland head coach Kevin Willard said. “They just have a great attitude, … you know, you have to give credit to these young men. They have worked hard and they have had a great attitude, and I’m just excited for them.”
Jahmir Young missed a free throw that would have given Maryland a three-point lead with just over four seconds remaining, and West Virginia’s Kedrian Johnson came down and nearly missed a game-winning shot on the other end.
Maryland trailed by as many as nine in the second half before mounting its comeback.
Strong second-half efforts from Julian Reese and Hakim Hart propelled Maryland, who will face the winner of Alabama vs. Texas A&M C-C on Saturday.
“I think Julian Reese has been one of if not the best big man in the Big Ten Conference for the last two months. And so anyone that’s surprised by what he did today hasn’t been watching us,” Willard said.
Reese scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half on Thursday, as the sophomore impacted the game on both ends of the floor to lead Maryland.
Hart finished with 15 points, four assists and was active in the passing lanes with two steals.
“Our scoring has been pretty balanced all year,” Willard said. “And I thought Hakim and I thought Don Carey’s leadership in the huddles, especially early on, was huge.”
In what was a game of runs, the teams exchanged blows early.
After Maryland jumped out to a quick 4-2 lead in the opening minutes, West Virginia went on a 14-0 extended run to take a 16-4 lead.
The run was aided by a lethargic Maryland offense. The Terps missed five shots, two free-throws, and turned the ball over six times during the run, as they were held scoreless for over seven minutes.
Joe Toussaint provided a spark off the bench for West Virgina by knocking down two 3-pointers in his nine minutes of first-half action.
Maryland began to claw its way back in the later stages and eventually grabbed the lead after a Young 3-pointer capped a 15-2 run, as the Terps took a 22-21 lead.
“It says a lot about our character to me,” Hart said. “It shows we’re going to keep continuing to fight. No matter [what] the outcome could be.”
Hart and Don Carey each knocked down 3-point shots during the comeback. Patrick Emilien chipped in five points of his own, as the senior converted a crucial and-one layup and a tough turnaround jumper.
Emilien’s shot gave Maryland a two-point halftime lead.
Out of the break, the Terps extended their lead. A layup from Reese and a 3-pointer from Carey helped push the advantage to 38-31.
West Virginia quickly responded, as Kedrian Johnson rattled off 10 straight points to help give the Mountaineers a six-point lead.
Johnson finished with a game-high of 27 points and knocked down 4-of-8 from 3-point range.
Maryland dealt with foul trouble throughout the second half, as Young picked up his fourth foul with just over 12 minutes to go in the game and was forced to sit.
Young struggled with the ball in his hands at times yet again on Thursday. The senior turned the ball over six times and was only 1-of-5 from the field.
“I think it’s one thing to practice against that defense for a couple [of] days. It’s another thing to all of a sudden see a coach Huggins’ defense live, … it was just getting him to kind of calm down, we have total confidence in him,” Willard said.
West Virginia dealt with foul trouble of its own, when big man Jimmy Bell fouled out with just over 10 minutes remaining. With Bell out, Maryland began pounding the paint.
The Terps outscored the Mountaineers 34-24 in the paint, with Reese doing most of the damage.
“I have so much confidence in [Reese] that I was just kind of throwing him the ball,” Willard said.
Trailing 59-56 after an Erik Stevenson three, Maryland used an 8-0 run to jump ahead for good.
A three from Donta Scott tied things up at 59, and an ensuing loose-ball scramble saw the ball land in the hands of Reese, who found Hart down low for a layup which gave Maryland a 61-59 lead.
An emphatic dunk from Reese capitalized Maryland’s run and gave the Terps a cushion down the stretch. West Virginia made only two of its last 10 shots from the field.
The tip time of Saturday’s matchup will be announced on Thursday evening.