Offensive stability propels Maryland basketball to 6-0 start

Photo by Maryland Athletics

No. 23 Maryland men’s basketball is rolling.

 Coming off a 95-79 defeat over Coppin State on Friday, it stands at 6-0 this season and comfortably atop the Big Ten Conference. However, this game was no rout, with the score not reflective of the Eagles’ fight.

To the Terps’ likely surprise, 3-4 Coppin State gave them the most trouble of anyone so far this season. It wasn’t Miami, which advanced to the Elite Eight last March, and had yet to lose before seeing Maryland in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-off Tournament finale, but the Bald Eagles, owner of the smallest budget of any Division I program and loser of four straight games.

Not only was this Maryland legend Juan Dixon’s first time going up against Maryland in his six years with his program, but the first time these two teams had matched up since Dec. 12, 1989. Coppin State bested the Terps that day, 70-63.

The game was gritty from the opening tip, and the Terps struggled to break away early like they had in their three previous home games. In fact, halfway through the first half, Coppin State held a 22-19 advantage off of a 9-0 run to take the lead from right under the Terps, who were already putting together yet another dreadful shooting performance from distance.

With the shots not falling and forward Donta Scott disengaged with the offense, taking just three attempts in the first half (all from three-point land and only one hitting), the Terps needed to find an answer to the feisty Eagles. They found what they were looking for in Julian Reese.

The second-year 6’9 forward has maximized his opportunity in his first season of regularly starting. In his second and third games of the year (his third and fourth starts of his collegiate career), he twice scored 19, going 7-9 and 8-9 from the field in back-to-back hyper-efficient outings. He also wrangled 19 rebounds in that span, solidifying himself as the team’s top board man.

He wasted no time making his presence known against the undersized  Eagles, blocking Nendah Tarke’s layup attempt on Maryland’s first trip on defense. From this point on, Reese positioned himself for every rebound, collecting 10 for his second double-double this season. He was the driving force for Maryland, putting up 26 second-chance points to Coppin State’s nine.

Reese put up 22 points through his first 18 minutes, connecting on all nine shots he took to top his career-high by halftime.

The Terps led then 47-36, and its dominating defense wore down the Bald Eagles in the second half. Reese’s production drastically slowed down, though. Foul trouble caught up to the big man, who exited in the final minutes with his fifth and final infraction to finish with 24 points on 10-12 shooting.

Reese did his job down low, but needed some help from the perimeter to keep the Coppin State defense honest. Hakim Hart contributed 22 points and eight rebounds to go with top-notch perimeter defense. In an afternoon when the Terps shot a lowly 4-21 from behind the arc, the guard put in two himself in four tries.

Maryland got its third and final 20-plus-point scorer in guard Jahmir Young, who capitalized on a game gone chippy. Both teams racked up three technical fouls, and as the team’s designated free-throw shooter, Young went 9-10 from the line to finish with 21 points and five assists.

Coach Kevin Willard said the game plan was to let Coppin State star Sam Sessoms “get his” by taking away his passing lanes and forcing him to finish against bigger players, which he did more often than not.

“Sam’s tough, man. He was tough when he was at Penn State, and he’s tough now,” Willard said. Sessoms finished with 28 points and six assists, but the Terps forced seven turnovers out of the guard.

Coppin State asserted itself early through its passing, mounting a 9-4 assist advantage through the first half. Maryland’s shooting also posed a potential issue, with the Terps going 3-10 from three while the Bald Eagles shot 5-11.

Maryland’s three-ball never got going, hitting only one more after halftime, with Young, Scott and Don Carey combining for 1-16 from a three-point distance. The team’s passing did improve, however, finishing with 12 assists to Coppin State’s 15.

As Maryland’s schedule gets tougher and its record has surged, the target on its back will only grow in size. Games like Friday’s show that Willard can adjust his offense while his defense continues to glow. When Scott turns in a sluggish performance, like he did after winning tournament MVP last weekend, it’s important that his teammates step up. If they can score 95 points while shooting 19% from three, this team can be a force in the Big Ten.

The Terps are set to face off Tuesday against Louisville, a team posting the inverse of Maryland’s record (0-6). They have what it takes and more to give the Cardinals their seventh straight loss.