Jahmir Young, in tears as he sat on the bench with his head buried in his hands, is one of the last images Maryland fans witnessed in the team’s surprise appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
The No. 8 Terps collapsed Saturday night in a 73-51 loss in the second round to the top-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide. What began as a defensive battle ended in another March blowout and the final stand for much of Maryland’s senior core.
Under first-year coach Kevin Willard, the Terps’ defense matched the Tide through the gritty first half, with sub-40% shooting from both sides. The dam then broke as Alabama got its long-range shooting working. Julian Reese and Young led the squad with 14 and 12 points, respectively, but every Terp played subpar ball.
“They just got the best of us tonight,” Young said. “I felt like we fought hard, I feel like the score doesn’t really reflect on how hard we played. I’m just proud of this group, I wouldn’t want to go to war with anybody else.”
In Birmingham, Alabama, Maryland (22-13) found itself in yet another hostile road arena, two days after edging No. 9 West Virginia there. That game was a good indication of what was to follow; slow, defensive-first basketball. The Mountaineers, not known for their stopping ability, couldn’t quite match the Terps, but the Crimson Tide proved itself a different beast as one of two remaining No. 1-seeds through the first weekend.
Defense, rebounding and a top-notch prospect were the formula for Alabama’s 30-win season heading into Saturday. In all three categories, it stood among the best in the nation. Freshman Brandon Miller — good for 19.1 points a game and a projected top three pick in the upcoming NBA Draft — was the engine of a hyper-efficient offense.
From the opening tip, the Terps looked about as comfortable as ever. Maryland connected on each of its first four shots to take an early 9-2 lead. Reese bought himself a pair of easy buckets off passes from his perimeter-dwelling teammates, picking up where he left off against West Virginia, when he dropped 19 points and pulled down seven rebounds to bury the Mountaineers.
It didn’t take long for the Crimson Tide to get back in the game as Reese picked up a pair of fouls in the first three minutes, and those fouls, especially the second one on a “mysterious” holding call, came back to bite the Terps.
“You can’t take our best player out of the game when the game was as physical as it was,” said Willard. “It was a horrible call. It changed our whole game plan. We were going to pound it inside, that’s what we have been doing for the last two months of the season. If he doesn’t get in foul trouble and they don’t take him out of the game, then I think the game’s different.”
Though First Team All-American Miller struggled, missing his first three shots, the Alabama defense strapped down to force nearly five minutes of scoreless action from Maryland until the midpoint of the first half.
Though the Terps shot 1-10 during that span, they still played at their pace. Their press remained effective at slowing down the opposing offense, but they lost a good scoring option when Reese picked up a third foul in his fourth minute. Young took advantage of the Alabama drop coverage for some mid-range shots in the opening stretch, but lacked some of his effectiveness without Reese as his regular screener.
Miller soon woke up, quickly collecting seven points by getting busy at the rim when his three-ball wasn’t working. Both teams each canned just a single three in the first half, but more importantly, the Terps kept the rebounding battle close. The Crimson Tide entered the matchup as the nation’s top rebounding team, including defensive boards (31.6) and total rebounds (44.5) per game.
Maryland ended the half raining six points in the final 90 seconds after Young got one more floater to go in. His eight points led Maryland making up a substantial chunk of the score as they trailed, 28-23.
Don Carey provided a boost as he contributed five points, and though Scott was a non-factor scoring-wise, his five boards were critical in keeping the rebounding battle close. Both teams shot below 40% through the first 20 minutes, and the fact that Maryland entered the break down five points despite sinking just two shots in a 14-minute period was a small victory.
Though the Terps this season typically stepped up their play in the second half, they lacked the necessary fire to contend with Alabama. Young got away on the break a few minutes in after the Terps stole the ball, but got packed going for a layup. On the other end, Miller—who got the block—hit a three to expand the Crimson Tide lead to ten through the first five minutes.
Maryland’s full-court press wasn’t as present as it was against West Virginia, but the Terps continued to limit threes. The team’s foul trouble persisted as Reese picked up his fourth with 12 minutes left.
Alabama capitalized on Maryland’s mistakes. An 8-0 run sent the Terps tumbling down a 52-35 hole with nine minutes left, much thanks to the Crimson Tide’s 13-0 lead in second-chance points.
“They have a very simple game plan, which works,” Willard said. “They just funnel everything into the big guy and take away the strong side and kicks, and they do a great job of it. They use their length tremendously. We tried to slow it down, and we were just not built to slow it down.”
The Terps, who shot a mere 1-4 from three in the first half, took only four more in the second period—without making any. Alabama’s shooting came around as they drilled six from behind the arc, killing any chance for a Maryland comeback.
Though this was the end of the road for the Terps, this was a step up for a program that last year suffered its first losing record in three decades. Willard took a team projected to finish towards the bottom of the conference to the Tournament, and he’s here to keep building.
“I’m gonna take away that this was by far the best team I’ve ever had to coach,” Willard said. “They made this my best coaching year I’ve ever had. I told them that I was proud of them, and I loved them, and I said thank you.”