COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland freshman guard Kevin Huerter wasn’t much in the mood for discussing his career-high shooting performance on New Year’s Day. Which was understandable, considering his team failed to score for the final 6:02 and blew a late 13-point lead, allowing Nebraska to stun the once-boisterous Xfinity Center crowd.
“[My shot] felt really good during the game, but it’s not a great feeling right now,” said a succinct Huerter, who finished 7-of-11 from 3-point range for a game-best 26 points. “Winning’s all that matters. If you don’t win, it doesn’t really matter.”
Fair enough, but despite the 67-65 loss, which dropped Maryland to 1-1 in Big Ten play, Huerter’s performance was encouraging for both the individual and the squad as a whole moving forward. Known as a deadeye marksman coming out of Clifton Park, N.Y., Huerter has excelled more as a defender and distributor than as a shooter thus far. Even with his 26-point outburst, Huerter, who almost doubled his previous career high (14 points against St. Peter’s), is still averaging just 6.9 points per game on 30-percent shooting from beyond the arc. He’s been admittedly reluctant to put the ball up -- he’s had more than a half-dozen attempts only six times in 15 games -- preferring to set his teammates up for open looks, particularly when his own jumper isn’t falling. Huerter, apparently, doesn’t adhere to the “shooters gotta shoot” mantra.
But following the Nebraska game, Huerter, when pressed, acknowledged he could build off his most recent effort.
“I think what helped is I was aggressive right from the tip, and obviously the first 3 went in,” Huerter said. “Any shooter will tell you, if you see the first shot go in you start to feel a lot better and a lot more confident. And guys just continued to find me. We ran a similar play all game, and Melo [Trimble] kept going through [the screen], allowing me to get a shot. So guys were being unselfish, and if we keep doing that, a lot of guys will have [big] games.”
Both Huerter and head coach Mark Turgeon made sure to point our the point guard Trimble’s role. The Huskers' game plan defensively was clearly to stymie UMD’s No. 1 offensive threat, so they offered help-defense on Trimble for much of the afternoon. Nebraska’s backcourt, with Glynn Watson and Tai Webster, sagged off Trimble to deny his driving lanes. And even when the Terps screened for their point guard, the Huskers did well rotating and cutting him off.
But rather than force the issue, the veteran guard found his open teammates, which, more often than not Jan. 1, was Kevin Huerter.
“Nebraska was more worried about stopping Melo and did a great job on him, and that opened things up for Kevin,” Turgeon said. “[Kevin’s] been practicing well, shooting it well, getting his legs underneath of him -- you could see it coming. It was good to see. He’s the one that really separated the game, and it was good to see him be more aggressive.”
Huerter actually missed his first three shots from the field, a mid-range jumper and two layups. But just before the initial media timeout, he used one of those Trimble screens to come open for an elbow triple, which he drained.
Huerter proceeded to connect on nine of his next 11 shots, including six more 3s, over the next 25 minutes-plus of game action.
“When I was the screener, [Trimble] would deny [the defender], and I’d come off it. Melo was unselfish; he took what the defense gave him,” Huerter said. “And our big guys were setting good screens today, so the same couple plays kept working.”
By the time the second half began, the Xfinity Center crowd seemed to rise in anticipation every time Huerter touched the ball. The arena exploded, however, when Huerter, off yet another screen from Trimble, knocked down a trey before Nebraska’s Jeriah Horne could close, drawing a foul in the process. Huerter proceeded to nail the free throw to complete his first collegiate four-point play.
“Tonight was a great atmosphere, and that was a cool moment. I haven’t hit any and-one 3s in a long time, so that was a good moment,” Huerter said.
Said Trimble: “[Huerter] was outstanding. Seven-for-11 from 3, that’s good shooting. He was hot, and he kept knocking down shots. Hopefully he continues to play like that.”
Of course, the above all proved secondary after the Terps folded in the last six minutes. Nebraska switched to a 1-3-1 zone in an attempt to limit Maryland’s screen game and prevent Huerter’s open looks.
It worked, as the New York native has just one attempt during the stretch. His teammates, meanwhile, failed to step up either.
“[Nebraska had] shown one possession all year in the 1-3-1 -- we didn’t work on it enough. That’s 100 percent on me there,” Turgeon said. “We got a few good looks, got some layups against it, and just couldn’t finish.
“We haven’t seen the 1-3-1 all year, but if you have a veteran team, you do what you’ve done in the past and adjust quicker. … Maybe our inexperience hurt us.”
Huerter, though, wouldn’t use inexperience as an excuse. He said Maryland’s practiced well against the 1-3-1, and should’ve executed down the stretch.
“We haven’t seen it in a game yet, but that’s really not an excuse. With the playmakers we have, we should’ve been better,” Huerter said. “And even if we weren’t hitting shots, which we weren’t at the end, we’ve got to have guys, including myself, crash the boards. It didn’t seem like we got any offensive rebounds.”
It’s safe to say Huerter, for his part, is going to rebound moving forward. He averages five a night and did have five more, including three of the offensive variety, Jan. 1 -- even if they seemed to slip his mind postgame. To boot, Huerter added in three steals and three assists, continuing to fill up the box score.
Now, if he can just stay dialed in from deep on a consistent basis . . .
“I mean, just like when I was a freshman, I scored a lot of points and it gave me confidence each game,” Trimble said. “Now, Kevin’s going to have a lot more confidence and hit a lot more 3s.”
For a team searching for a second reliable scoring option, Turgeon and the Maryland faithful can only hope.