SYRACUSE, N.Y. — After playing twice in the previous three days, the Maryland men's basketball team could have made excuses about its 72-70 loss to Syracuse on Monday.
The Big Ten/ACC Challenge bout followed a Friday loss to St. Bonaventure and Saturday win over New Mexico in the Emerald Coast Classic .
But rather than wilting against the Orange on short rest, the Terps used a breakout shooting performance from guard Kevin Huerter to compete until the buzzer. After drawing little attention through his first seven contests, Huerter went 7-for-9 from 3-point range and led the team with 23 points.
While Huerter's play was not quite enough, his hot hand and ability to step up under adverse conditions offered promise for the season ahead.
Guard Anthony Cowan and bench weapons Darryl Morsell and Bruno Fernando were the Terps' most reliable offensive threats entering the game. Huerter, meanwhile, had yet to lead the team in scoring. He'd also struggled to take care of the ball, which he said was eating at him after he committed five turnovers against Bucknell on Nov. 18.
Huerter coughed up the ball twice in the opening two minutes Monday night. His teammates stepped up in his place, carrying the load to keep close with the Orange early on.
Forward Justin Jackson hit two jumpers in the opening five minutes. Fernando scored eight first-half points, including a two-handed dunk over Orange center Paschal Chukwu and a righty hammer on top of forward Marek Dolezaj. Cowan used his speed on the fast break to ignite an 8-0 run just before halftime.
But the final 20 minutes belonged to Huerter, who made four 3-pointers after the break.
Huerter began his dominant stretch by swishing a shot from a couple of feet behind the 3-point line to give the Terps a 52-50 lead. He offered an expressionless stare to the sideline as he trotted back on defense, seeming to indicate it was his turn to take over. Fewer than four minutes later, he hit another deep ball to take a 56-55 advantage.
With 1:42 to play, the Carrier Dome crowd quieted even before Huerter released a wide-open attempt that put the Terps ahead again. He canned his fourth trey of the second half with seven seconds to go, cutting Syracuse's lead to one.
The Orange survived, though, scoring a breakaway dunk to help seal the win.
Still, Huerter reaffirmed his status as a deadly 3-point shooter able to take over games, a crucial asset for a balanced roster lacking a true superstar.
Sometimes it'll be Cowan leading the way, as he did with a career-high 25 points against Butler on Nov. 15. In other moments it'll be Jackson, Fernando or Morsell.
When Maryland needed an unexpected jolt in its first true road game of the year, Huerter made his first major mark on the campaign, never losing his edge despite playing 98 minutes in four days.
The Clifton Park, New York, native returned to his home state with his best performance of the season, keeping the Terps afloat as a fast-paced game tested their tired legs. Huerter's 3-point shooting was the antidote to Maryland's recent struggles against zone defenses, and he didn't commit any turnovers after his two early miscues.
It seems like Fernando makes an opponent look silly every time he plays for the Terps. He made a few Orange players look smaller and less athletic than him, adding three blocks and two steals to his pair of thunderous dunks.
After helping the Terps settle in during a back-and-forth first half, Jackson reverted to what he's done for most of the season by focusing on the boards and playing tight defense. He recorded just three points after the opening five minutes, but he still filled the box score with seven rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block.
When Huerter struggled early on as the quarterback of Maryland's offense from the high-post, coach Mark Turgeon asked Morsell to step into that role. Morsell provided a first-half boost by dishing five assists. He might never be a reliable shooter, though, and his inefficient 3-for-10 outing hindered the Terps late.
Cowan was never the focal point of Turgeon's offense on Monday, as he's seemingly not at his best against the zone, which restricts his ability to use his quickness in the half-court offense. His costly turnover in the final minute put Syracuse in control, negating his bright moments in transition.