Maryland blasted out of the gates in Birmingham like an upset-minded team ready to take a wider playing stage in coach Kevin Willard’s first season.
The Terps even limited Alabama star Brandon Miller for a large chunk of the first half until they couldn’t hold the NBA hopeful anymore. With Miller’s help and a game-high 22 points from Jahvon Quinerly, the Crimson Tide recovered from an early Maryland lead, took control of the game and never relinquished their advantage.
Powered by a combination of offensive bursts and a consistent defensive display, No. 1 seed Alabama (31-5) eliminated No. 8 seed Maryland men’s basketball (22-13) from the NCAA tournament in the second round on Saturday, 73-51.
The opening act of Willard’s career at Maryland came to a close, and he successfully took a Terps team that finished with a losing record the season before and coached them to the national tournament.
“We’re in the second round of the NCAA tournament  days [after I was hired],” Willard said. “It’s a good first step … if you had told me I’d be playing in the second round [after] inheriting five guys on the roster — I would have told you you’re nuts.”
Jahmir Young, Donta Scott and Hakim Hart — all of whom have eligibility left — have incoming decisions that could alter Maryland’s potential path back to the postseason next season.
A long off-season awaits, but Willard says he’s proud of how people think of Maryland basketball now as the Terps’ season ends in mid-March.
After sneaking by No. 9 seed West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 64, Maryland duked it out with a whole other beast in No. 1 seed Alabama and Miller.
But the Terps seemed unaffected by the Crimson Tide’s starry pedigree at first.
[Julian Reese’s stellar NCAA tournament debut for Maryland men’s basketball was no surprise]
With the help of two Julian Reese lay-ups, who notched a double-digit performance against the Mountaineers, Maryland flipped its first four shots through the net for a quick 9-2 lead.
Alabama quickly responded with a pair of foul shots from Miller, but Maryland’s early established advantage stuck to the scoreboard for a majority of the first half. A large part of that was a vicious defensive back-and-forth that saw both teams’ shooting percentages plummet.
Maryland stymied an explosive Alabama offense that looked out-of-rhythm with Miller nursing a groin injury. But the Terps allowed the Crimson Tide to creep back and snatch the lead after several missed shots amid early foul trouble for Reese — who earned three infractions in just four minutes of playing time.
Willard ripped into the officiating on Reese’s second foul.
“You can’t call that second foul [on Reese], not in an NCAA tournament game,” Willard said. “That’s just my feeling on it. I think it was a horrible call and I thought it changed the outcome of the game.”
Then Miller turned it on.
The forward found ample opportunities to shoot with Reese playing only four minutes in the first-half. Miller finished with nine points in the first-half, and 19 overall.
A late 6-2 run before the half managed to somewhat salvage a difficult shooting performance from Maryland with Miller thriving. Jahmir Young sank a floater just before the buzzer to send the Terps into the locker room with a five-point deficit against the top-seeded Crimson Tide.
Both squads found decisive offensive success during the beginning of the second half with a clear tone-change from a physical first half in which Maryland and Alabama went blow-for-blow.
[Maryland men’s basketball ekes past West Virginia, 67-65, in first round of NCAA tournament]
Nothing exemplified that better than a fast-paced sequence after a Crimson Tide three bounced off the rim. They grabbed the offensive board just for Hakim Hart to snatch it away and sprint down the floor before he passed it to Young. Miller then stuffed Young to the pleasure of the increasingly loud local crowd in favor of Alabama.
“It’s pretty much like another road game,” Reese said. “Playing in the Big Ten, I’m used to stuff like that. Just [trying] to focus on the win.”
Miller subsequently dropped a three through the net on Alabama’s next possession to build the Crimson Tide’s lead to 10. After a stagnant period, Maryland and Alabama continued exchanging quick scores before the Terps’ situation worsened.
Patrick Emilien suffered a cut to his face, blood seeping down it, and had to go to the locker room. Shortly after, Reese picked up his fourth foul and Caelum Swanton-Rodger needed to take the floor briefly before coach Kevin Willard shifted to a small-ball approach with no big men outside of Donta Scott on the floor.
The lineup instability likely contributed to an extended offensive drought for the Terps that only grew the Crimson Tide’s lead in the waning minutes of the match and pushed Maryland further out of the postseason.
“They just got the best of us tonight,” Young said. “We fought hard. The score doesn’t really reflect on how hard we played tonight … I’m just proud of the guys and I love them.”
Lacking the firepower for a comeback, Alabama was able to pace itself ahead of Maryland and eliminated the Terps from the NCAA tournament.
“This was by far the best team I’ve ever had to coach,” Willard said. “This team for me made coaching really fun … I’m proud of these guys, proud of their effort.”