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Julian Reese has been building toward his NCAA tournament moment

South Region second round: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 8 Maryland, 9:40 p.m. Saturday (TBS)

Julian Reese had one of his best games as a Terrapin in Maryland's first-round NCAA tournament win over West Virginia. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
6 min

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — This time a year ago, Julian Reese watched the NCAA tournament from College Park, and his focus already had turned toward his sophomore season. His Maryland team had flailed through its schedule with an interim coach, knowing early on its postseason hopes already had faded. Reese said he understood the Terrapins’ predicament and that they didn’t have “the right tools to be there.”

So Reese worked out while waiting in limbo for his new coach to arrive, ready for a future that would include his participation in his sport’s main event. When Kevin Willard accepted the top job at Maryland, he met with the players, and Reese remembers him speaking intensely, setting the tone and earning the team’s respect. Willard explained that he wouldn’t accept laziness. Reese believed in the vision.

The Baltimore native stayed loyal to Maryland, and in return, he has blossomed after earning a full-time starting role for the Terps.

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Reese sometimes slips into foul trouble, and a shoulder injury limited him earlier this season. But lately, his scoring outputs have steadied. He recently generated four straight double-doubles, and since the beginning of February, Reese has averaged 13.2 points. In that span, he has finished with fewer than 10 points only once. Now Reese is here at the tournament, and on this stage he had one of his best outings — 17 points and nine rebounds — to propel the eighth-seeded Terps past West Virginia into Saturday’s second round.

Willard has been adamant this season, particularly recently, that Reese is one of the best big men in the Big Ten. And Willard said after Reese’s first-round performance that “​anyone that’s surprised by what he did today hasn’t been watching us.”

Next up for Maryland is top-seeded Alabama, and the Crimson Tide’s roster is packed with depth and length. Reese draws a matchup against 7-foot center Charles Bediako, a formidable rim-protector, and the Crimson Tide will test Reese’s ability to avoid fouling. (He has picked up at least four fouls in about half his games this season.)

In Reese’s NCAA tournament debut, assistant coach Grant Billmeier noticed “a little bit of stage fright” from the sophomore, who had two turnovers and no shot attempts in the opening six minutes. Reese said he needed to adjust to West Virginia’s physicality. Willard substituted Reese out of the game for a brief stretch, but once he returned, Billmeier saw a stark transformation.

“Once he starts getting in his groove and getting confident and talking and playing with emotion,” Billmeier said, “that’s when I know he’s got the nerves out of his system.”

That confidence turned into perhaps one of Reese’s best performances in a Maryland jersey. The Terps probably would have been eliminated without him.

With under four minutes to go and the game tied, a pair of West Virginia defenders trapped Maryland point guard Jahmir Young near the sideline. The ball flung into the air and was tipped multiple times by Mountaineers trying to secure the giveaway, but then Reese stretched his arms, leaped and grabbed the ball. In an instant, he spotted teammate Hakim Hart open under the basket and hurled a pass his way. Hart finished with an easy layup, and the Terps never trailed again.

With West Virginia’s starting center in foul trouble, Reese wanted to capitalize by playing with aggression. After the halftime break, Reese made 5 of 7 field goal attempts, tied for his most second-half baskets this season. With 2:45 remaining, Reese dunked to give Maryland a five-point lead, the team’s most comfortable margin since early in the second half and finally a reason for the fan base to begin exhaling.

The Terps needed Reese in large part because Young has struggled through the postseason. Young, Maryland’s leading scorer this season, only scored 10 points, seven of which came at the free throw line, and had six turnovers against West Virginia. When Young picked up his fourth foul against West Virginia with Maryland trailing and 13:20 to go, backup point guard Jahari Long had to run the offense. Reese scored the team’s next seven points. The way West Virginia’s defenders pressured the ball on the perimeter, Billmeier said, gave Reese plenty of space to operate in the paint.

That stretch “was important for us,” Reese said. “Picking up the pieces that fell apart. Stepping up for the guys that are in foul trouble as they do for me sometimes.”

Reese’s strong post presence is what the Terps lacked in recent seasons. The departures of Bruno Fernando (2017-19) and Jalen Smith (2018-20) left a significant void. Maryland languished the next two seasons without a resounding answer.

Alabama transfer Galin Smith made 17 starts for the Terps in 2020-21 but did not offer much production in the Big Ten. Chol Marial, a wild-card 7-foot-2 center, had lingering injuries and logged just 39 points in two seasons before transferring. Ultimately, Maryland turned to 6-foot-8 Donta Scott, who played out of position at the center spot at times during the 2020-21 campaign. The next season, the Terps added another transfer, Qudus Wahab from Georgetown, and he started all but one game while struggling against the conference’s best centers. Reese, a freshman at the time, had to wait.

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“It was kind of difficult, being patient, waiting my turn, knowing I was going to get a new coach next year,” Reese said of his turbulent freshman experience.

But now he’s the answer. Willard committed to the returners — Scott, Hart and Reese — that he wouldn’t recruit transfers to play ahead of them. With that opportunity, Reese has nearly doubled his production from his freshman year and just shined in the biggest moment of his season.

“He puts his big-boy pants on, and he knows a lot of guys are older than him, a lot of guys are more mature than him,” Scott said. “But he goes out there and he takes that challenge on.”