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Maryland endures all March has to offer — and lives to play again

The Maryland bench reacts during the second half of Thursday's victory over West Virginia. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
6 min

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Fate in March can be fickle. Maryland point guard Jahmir Young made his first seven free throws Thursday. His eighth — with 4.7 seconds left and the Terrapins holding a two-point lead in their first-round NCAA men’s tournament game against West Virginia — trickled around the rim and fell away.

So here came Mountaineers guard Kedrian Johnson, futures in the balance. From right near the massive “March Madness” logo at Legacy Arena’s center court, Johnson let it fly. By no definition was it a high-percentage shot. By every definition, it was ulcer-inducing.

“If you can give up a one-foot runner at the end of the game,” Maryland Coach Kevin Willard said, “you’ll take it.”

Except sometimes those one-foot runners — even from 30 feet — go in. That’s why fingernails are frayed, why stomachs turn, why the TV remains on regardless of who’s playing. One-possession college basketball games in March, with the clock ticking down? Yes, please.

And yet for players and coaches, this is all so fragile. The idea that seasons can be deemed successes or failures based on whether a last-second heave hits iron or net borders on bonkers. That moment when the ball leaves the hand for a final time — the air is about sucked out of the building. For one side, it will result in a long, quiet flight home. For the other, it will lead to a thorough scouting of top overall seed Alabama before a satisfying meal.

“Once the ball’s in the air,” Young said, “you’re praying it’s not going to go in.”

It didn’t, and the first survivor in a tournament that is defined by survival was Maryland, a 67-65 winner in Willard’s first NCAA tournament game at his new job.

“This is what you work for since summer began,” senior forward Hakim Hart said.

That would have been true no matter where Johnson’s shot ended up. Yet somehow, Maryland’s season feels different because it missed.

Here is a list of things that happened to the Terrapins on Thursday: They went scoreless for 7:39 in the first half. Their offense toggled between ugly and atrocious, and they fell behind by 13. Midway through the half, they had six points. Young picked up his fourth foul with just more than 13 minutes left in the game. West Virginia used a 13-0 run on four possessions — back-to-back and-ones from Johnson, a four-point play from Johnson and another three-pointer — to turn a seven-point second-half deficit into an eight-point lead in all of 2½ minutes.

Through it all, Willard remained all business. This is the full experience of the 2022-23 Terrapins, for whom basketball that’s beautiful and basketball that’s hard to watch can be contained in the stanzas between TV timeouts. It’s why the Terps could have six straight possessions that went like this — turnover, turnover, turnover, Hart miss, turnover, turnover — and Willard could gather his team in the huddle and say, “We’re only down nine and we have four points? That’s a celebration on the road.”

He was only half-kidding. The Terrapins went 16-1 in College Park this season, 5-11 everywhere else. Willard never seems rattled by any of it. Though the Terps are uncommonly balanced — all five starters scored between nine and 17 points Thursday — Young is without question their most important player because their offense has a tough time getting going when he can’t.

Against the long, strong Mountaineers, he decidedly couldn’t.

“They just made us question a couple of passes,” Young said. “They got a couple deflections and stuff like that. We just had to slow down a little bit. We were excited. I feel like we had a couple nerves coming in.”

Young entered Thursday having played 118 college games at Charlotte and Maryland combined. None had been in the NCAA tournament. Willard’s approach, as Young coughed up the ball and West Virginia took a 16-4 lead, was to have Young come join him on the bench.

“Today was like a boxing match,” Willard said. “He got hit a couple times. And I think it just relaxed him. He was able to see it.”

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Now Young and the Terps have seen it and felt it. They know they can steady themselves even after a putrid start, and instead of being run out of the tournament almost before it started, they led 32-30 at the half. They know they can absorb the kind of microwave performance put on by Johnson and respond. They know that when their opponent surges late — West Virginia took a 59-56 lead with five minutes left — they can fall back on their defense, which then forced five straight scoreless Mountaineers possessions.

They may not be able to beat Alabama. But they won’t buckle.

“You get down, you don’t want to get down on yourselves,” senior forward Donta Scott said. “At that time, it’s battle time.”

The Terps can battle — as individuals and together. Surviving takes a village, particularly for Maryland. When Young drew his fourth foul, the Terps trailed by six. When he returned to the lineup just more than six minutes later, the score was tied. Scott buried the three-pointer that tied it at 59. Julian Reese, who has blossomed over the past six weeks, produced a dominant stretch that included corralling the loose ball that Hart turned into the go-ahead bucket. Young hit two late free throws.

And yet, when that final free throw rolled around the rim and fell to the side, hearts moved into throats.

“You have to hope,” Willard said.

2023 NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket

When Johnson rose, Young stood at the three-point arc, his palms out in what amounted to a frightened pose. Johnson had made four threes and scored 27 points. Why not three more?

“Every shot I took today,” Johnson said, “I thought it had a chance to go in.”

It definitely had a chance.

“He’s an inch away from winning the game for us,” said Bob Huggins, West Virginia’s Hall of Fame coach. “It was dead on line. It was dead on line.”

The ball instead bounced harmlessly to the floor. Young turned to his bench and leaped. Willard put both his palms up so a passing Don Carey could slap them. And then he strode down the sidelines to shake Huggins’s hand, to embrace the gritty Johnson. Maryland’s fate is to face Alabama on Saturday. It had to endure all that March has to offer to get that opportunity.