Julian Reese galloped down the court with Maryland holding just a three-point lead in desperate need of a finishing jab.
The forward darted towards the basket, grasped the pass from a sprinting Jahmir Young and took flight for a two-handed dunk. Reese hung off the rim, pumped his fist and dropped to the ground.
The critical dunk made the Terps’ advantage five and did just enough for Maryland to suppress a late comeback attempt that ended with a West Virginia three-pointer that fell just short at the buzzer.
Reese played a career-high 37 minutes and racked up 17 points, nine rebounds and three assists to go along with three blocks in his first NCAA tournament game against the No. 9 seeded Mountaineers.
The forward’s 17 points is the third-most in a national tournament game since 2015 from a Maryland forward or center.
The sophomore benefited from Mountaineers starting forward Jimmy Bell Jr. fouling out of the in the second half after playing for just 11 total minutes. Reese racked up 13 second-half points including his crucial dunk in the waning minutes.
“Had a smaller guy on me, Bell was such a force down low, and I felt like we took advantage of that well in the second half,” Reese said.
Reese’s success isn’t new. The forward has thrived within the last month — scoring in double digits and collecting at least five rebounds in 12 of his last 13 games after scoring less than 10 points in eight of his first 13 games this season.
He’s filled the void of the outgoing transfer Qudus Wahab admirably after the two split time at center last season and has shifted from a bench role to his starting spot smoothly.
While Reese still has room for improvement — his free throw percentage decreased from about 80 percent last season to about 54 percent this season, he ranks second on the team in turnovers with 64 and leads the team in fouls with over 100 — he’s improved in points, rebounds and assists per game.
Coach Kevin Willard said a chunk of that development came from Reese’s improved work ethic and personality as he’s grown more comfortable on the floor. The coach said he thought that people still hadn’t seen the best of him yet after he scored 24 points against Coppin State on Nov. 25.
“Anyone that’s watched us over the last month and a half, two months understands how good Julian Reese is,” coach Kevin Willard said. “[Initially], we were struggling, they were doing a great job trapping pick-and-rolls.”
With Maryland down 13 early, Willard said he told Reese that he needed a bucket. Reese replied that he’d get him one, and the Baltimore native supplied a jumper to kickstart a run that overcame the deficit.
“The Big Ten prepares you for some big teams and although this was a big team, I just thought [Reese] has been through the battles,” Willard said. “I just have so much confidence in him that I was just gonna throw him the ball.”
Whether it was Bell Jr. fouling out or Reese reaching the peak of his development this season — the forward proved crucial in Thursday’s win.
Maryland will face No. 1 seed Alabama on Saturday night with a shot to advance to the Sweet 16 for the 15th time in school history. Willard and the Terps will hope Reese can supply a similar performance in a bid to replicate Thursday’s result.