Hakim Hart found himself underneath the basket with no one near him. The ball was repeatedly tipped high into the air before Julian Reese caught what seemed to be an apparent Maryland turnover and passed it to a wide-open Hart.
He placed the ball through the net to give the Terps an important advantage in a game with 11 lead changes, one that they’d never surrender.
Reese and Hart combined for 32 points Thursday as No. 8 seed Maryland men’s basketball (22-12, 11-9 Big Ten) kept its season alive, downing No. 9 seed West Virginia (19-15, 7-11 Big 12), 67-65, in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Birmingham, Alabama.
The Terps won their first national tournament game under coach Kevin Willard, who became the first coach in program history to lead a team to the national tournament in their inaugural season when Maryland earned an at-large bid on Selection Sunday.
Maryland earned its first victory over the Mountaineers since 1991 after falling to them in their last three meetings, most recently in the round of 32 of the 2015 NCAA tournament. The Terps have now won 15 of their last 16 NCAA tournament first round games.
Willard’s squad will play the winner of No. 1 seed Alabama and No. 16 seed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the second round.
The Terps struggled offensively from the start, turning the ball over six times in the opening seven minutes. After scoring two layups in the first two minutes, Maryland suffered a scoring drought of almost eight minutes after another lethargic start saw it trail by double digits early.
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“It’s one thing to practice against that defense for a couple of days. It’s another thing to all the sudden see a [West Virginia coach Bob Huggins] defense live,” Willard said.
The coach said after the game that he wasn’t worried after the Terps’ slow start. The physical Mountaineers’ defense that smothered the Terps to start softened as it got into foul trouble.
Kedrian Johnson fouled twice in the opening six minutes and Jimmy Bell Jr. picked up three fouls in just over 10 minutes. West Virginia finished the half with three players with two or more fouls and Maryland took advantage.
The Terps’ offense improved in all areas. They got to the lane more often as the half went on and ended the first half with nine free throws. Don Carey, Jahmir Young and Hart used the improved spacing to each hit a three-pointer, Maryland’s only makes from deep in the first half on eight attempts.
The Terps’ initial struggles taking care of the ball meant they shot the ball just 19 times to the Mountaineers’ 28, but Willard’s squad converted at an efficient 55 percent clip in the opening 20 minutes to catch up to West Virginia.
Maryland went on a 26-11 run over the last 10:14 of the first half. Despite being down by 13 at the halfway point of the first half, it took a two-point lead into the break.
“I just told my team ‘just keep fighting.’ You get down, you don’t want to get down on yourself,” Donta Scott said. “At that point, it’s just battle time. It’s time to lock in, do some of the things you probably wasn’t doing before.”
An and-one layup from Reese and a Carey three helped the Terps to a seven-point lead, their largest of the day, early in the second half.
Then Johnson took charge.
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The West Virginia guard got to the basket on consecutive Mountaineer possessions and finished through contact at the rim twice, knocking down the free throw after each and-one layup.
When Johnson pulled up from deep just less than a minute later, his three-pointer fell true even as Ian Martinez hit his arm. Johnson converted the extra foul shot again to cap off a personal 10-0 run that gave the Mountaineers the lead.
Johnson finished with a game-high 27 points on 8-for-13 shooting from the field and made four threes.
“That’s a bad man right there. He’s a tough matchup, I’m a big fan of [Johnson’s]” Willard said. “We just decided to stay in zone and just keep [Reese] down low to kind of close up those driving lanes.”
Maryland recovered from an eight-point deficit through Reese’s inside play. The sophomore scored seven straight points for the Terps and finished with a team-high 17.
Soon after, Hart knocked down three layups to put Maryland up again as the two teams traded blows in the back-and-forth contest.
The tipped ball that landed to a wide-open Hart gave the Terps the lead again after falling behind, and a Reese slam grew that advantage to five with just under three minutes remaining.
The Mountaineers inched back. A Tre Mitchell layup with just eight seconds remaining brought West Virginia within one, and Jahmir Young missed the backend of his two free throws to keep the Maryland advantage to just two points.
Johnson raced down the court with an opportunity to win the game at the buzzer for the Mountaineers, but the player West Virginia relied on all game couldn’t produce one final time. His shot fell short as Willard’s squad kept its season alive.