- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2023

After trailing by as many as 13 points in the first half, eighth-seeded Maryland mounted a furious rally to take a halftime lead, and Julian Reese’s 13 second-half points helped the Terrapins hold off ninth-seeded West Virginia 67-65 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament’s South Regional Thursday.

The Baltimore native finished with 17 points and nine rebounds to lead the Terrapins to their largest comeback win of the season when they needed it the most. 

“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,” Maryland coach Kevin Willard said.

“I feel like watching the film and after the first half we adjusted well, and I adjusted well,” Reese said, “and I feel like I was able to elevate my game and elevated my team.”

Jahmir Young scored 10 points, but his postseason shooting struggles continued, going 1-for-5 from the floor after a 6-for-28 performance in two games at the Big Ten Tournament. Young also was responsible for six of Maryland’s 13 turnovers.

“I think it’s one thing to practice against that defense for a couple days. It’s another thing to all of a sudden see [WVU coach Bob] Huggins’ defense live,” Maryland coach Kevin Willard said of Young’s struggles. “For anything, it was just getting him to kind of calm down.”

Senior leaders Hakim Hart and Donta Scott filled in the void, adding 15 and 11, respectively, for Maryland (22-12) who overcame another deficit of eight points in a seesawing, back-and-forth second half. 

“It says a lot about our character to me,” Hart said. “It shows we’re going to keep continuing to fighting, no matter what the outcome could be. Just keep continuing to keep fighting.”

Kedrian Johnson was sensational for West Virginia (19-15), scoring a game-high 27, 17 in the second half. After Young missed the second of two foul shots with four seconds left, Johnson’s running three-point heave went left of the hoop as time expired. 

“Every shot I took tonight I thought had a chance at going in,” he said.

After playing the entirety of the first half, WVU leading scorer Erik Stevenson only saw 11 minutes of action down the stretch and was held to 9 points on 4-of-17 shooting. He had been averaging 22 points in his last seven games. It’s only the third time in 22 games the Mountaineers have lost a game after leading by double digits.

“We were a little careless with the ball and they made shots,” Huggins said. “They made shots. They started backing us in. We didn’t match up very well with them when they started backing us in. It wasn’t a good matchup for us.”

Early uncharacteristic sloppy basketball plagued Maryland, which committed six turnovers — four of those steals — and three fouls in the first six-plus minutes. That gave WVU multiple fast break opportunities, which the Mountaineers converted to open up an 11-0 run and a 13-4 lead.

WVU, as expected, won the size and physicality battle, and Maryland reverted to an early-season, first-half version of themselves in not finding the bottom of the net.

The Terrapins scored two buckets in the game’s first minute. They then went without a point for the next 7:40 until a Young free throw broke the drought.

“At the start of the game, we underestimated their physicality,” Reese said. “They were able to push us off our plays and not letting us run our offense.”

Willard called a stop-the-bleeding timeout just before the halfway point of the first half. It’s a move that’s spurred Maryland in past instances this season, and it’s one that worked again as this game might have been slipping away.

“When you look up and you have six turnovers and it’s only 13-4, there’s reason to be excited,” Willard said. “I’m a guy who looks at everything in a positive way, so I told the guys, ‘Guys, it’s 13-4, we have 6 turnovers. If that’s the best they can do then I think we’re in pretty good shape.’”

Mountaineer forward Jimmy Bell picked up his third foul following the stoppage, heading to the bench and leaving a 285-pound void in the West Virginia defense. 

“Bell was such a force down low, and I felt like we took advantage of that well in the second half,” Reese said.

Maryland seized the opportunity, with Reese finding a layup, Don Carey knocking down a three, and Patrick Emilien converting an and-one. That fueled a 16-2 Terrapin run, punctuated by a Young three — his lone field goal of the game — and Maryland took the lead back, 22-21. 

The Terrapins would ride that wave into halftime and a 32-30 advantage off of a blistering 55% shooting, most of that coming in the latter stages of the period. 

Maryland would finish 51.1% from the floor. West Virginia took 11 more shots (56) but made one less than the Terrapins (22), for only a 39.3% success rate.

“I just told my team just keep fighting,” Scott said “You get down, you don’t want to get down on yourselves. At that time, it’s battle time, time to lock in. Do some of the things that you probably weren’t doing before … just get after it.”

Johnson would give the Mountaineers life in the second half, going on a 10 point run all by himself, punctuated by a four-point play. He’d hit another three two possessions later, scoring 13 in a 16-point West Virginia run, vaulting the Mountaineers back up 47-38 with only 7:00 gone in the second half.

“That’s a bad man right there. He’s a tough matchup. I’m a big fan of his,” Willard said of Johnson. “We went zone, we tried to take away the iso.”

Foul issues nagged both teams during the session. Young would pick up his third and fourth in a matter of 28 seconds, and took a seat with 13:20 left in the game. He wasn’t the only recipient: 13 combined fouls were called in just 9:00 after halftime, with WVU’s Bell fouling out midway though the second half.

Down 49-41, Reese began his takeover, scoring seven straight Maryland points to pull UMD within three 51-48.

“I have a lot of confidence in throwing the ball down to Juju,” Willard said. “I told him, ‘Big fella, I need a bucket. Go get me one.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to get ya, coach.’”

Hart would get the Terrapins even with a layup at 54-all. The back and forth would continue — the lead changed 11 times in the game, including four times in four minutes late. Reese elevated even more, punctuating his scoring with a fast break dunk with 2:45 to go.

It would be Maryland’s final field goal, as three free throws from Young would be enough for the Terrapins to hold on. The win is Maryland’s 15th first-round victory in their last 16 NCAA Tournament appearances. The second round on Saturday and a likely matchup with No. 1 seed Alabama now awaits.

“This group, they have come together … they have had a great attitude. They have had an unbelievable work ethic,” Willard said “They have been down all year at certain points in the game. They have never turned on each other. They just have a great attitude.”

• George Gerbo can be reached at ggerbo@washingtontimes.com.

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