ORLANDO, Fla. — When Xavier guard Trevon Bluiett drained his fourth 3-pointer with about 11 minutes remaining Thursday evening, he held three fingers in the air and clapped as the Maryland men's basketball team called a timeout. About a minute later when he knocked down another trey, the 6-foot-6, 198-pound swingman smiled while jogging back on defense after giving the Musketeers an eight-point lead.
The Terps knew limiting Bluiett would be crucial in their opening NCAA tournament game, and he scored three points on 1-for-8 shooting in the first half. But when he found a rhythm in the second half, Bluiett's confidence shined. The junior scored 11 points in Xavier's decisive 16-2 run and finished with a game-high 21 points on five 3-pointers in the No. 11-seed Musketeers' 76-65 victory over No. 6-seed Maryland.
"He's one of the best players in the Big East and in the country at his position," guard Jared Nickens said. "With players like that, you just have to try to contain him. We did a good job on him. He just got hot."
While the Terps didn't know much about the Musketeers when they received the matchup last Sunday, coach Mark Turgeon and guards Melo Trimble and Kevin Huerter were familiar with Bluiett from watching his highlights on TV. They remembered he scored 40 points on nine 3-pointers against Cincinnati on Jan. 26. They described him as "off the charts," "special" and "really good."
When guard Edmond Sumner tore his ACL in January, Bluiett emerged as the team's offensive leader. He averaged the third-most points per game in the Big East this season (18.1). When Xavier sought a marquee victory in the Big East tournament to qualify for the NCAA tournament, Bluiett scored a game-high 23 points in his team's win over Butler, which is a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
So even after Bluiett missed his first seven shots Thursday, the Terps, who held a 36-35 halftime lead, knew he would be aggressive in the second frame. The Indianapolis native scored five points in the first four minutes. Midway through, he made three 3-pointers in four possessions, celebrating as he sparked his team's 16-2 spurt for an 11-point lead. Bluiett notched 18 points on 6-for-7 shooting in the second period.
Forward L.G. Gill said the team didn't change its defense against Bluiett in the second half. But Huerter and forward Justin Jackson, two freshmen who've often defended top opposing swingmen this season, couldn't half his groove once Bluiett admitted he shook off the pregame jitters of playing in the campaign's final tournament.
"We were still playing good defense on him for the most part," Gill said. "He hit really tough shots. He takes kind of weird shots, but he hits them."
On his team's final possession, Bluiett ran out the shot clock and placed the ball on the court in front of Trimble. Twelve seconds later, when the final buzzer blared, Bluiett celebrated the upset victory with his teammates. While Trimble led the Terps to 24 wins this season and their third straight NCAA tournament, Xavier's star got the last smile.
"I never doubted him," Jackson said. "Great players do great things, and he's a great player."