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Impressive in first two seasons, Maryland's Kevin Huerter still hunting first game-winner

The Terps' Kevin Huerter talks about preparations for the Michigan State game on Sunday.

COLLEGE PARK — Beginning with a last-second block against Georgetown at Verizon Center in his second game as a freshman, Kevin Huerter has made his share of big plays in his first two seasons at Maryland.

They have come in different forms: a rebound and long outlet pass to Anthony Cowan Jr. to help hold off Indiana last season; nine straight free throws in the second half to help beat Penn State this season.

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Going into Sunday’s home game against No. 6 Michigan State, something has eluded the 6-foot-7 guard known mostly for his textbook-form jumper: his first outright game-winner since leaving high school.

Former Maryland star Greivis Vásquez will be back on campus Sunday hoping to raise awareness and funds for his foundation.

Hunting for it is almost counterintuitive to the way Huerter learned to play the game growing up in Clifton Park, N.Y., where he became the New York State Player of the Year as a senior at Shenendehowa High.

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“For me, it’s always trying to find the right shot,” Huerter said Friday. “I don’t think my mindset has been that the best shot will [only] come from me.

“Anytime you’re the focal point of somebody else’s defense, even though you’re expected to take and make big shots, there could be other guys that have just better shots than you.”

As the Terps have recently endured a pair of difficult road defeats — a 68-67 loss at then-No. 23 Michigan on Jan. 15 and Monday’s 71-68 loss at Indiana — last-minute shots have come into play for Huerter.

Against the Wolverines, Huerter had appeared to hit his first game-winner, a 3-pointer with 3.2 seconds left, until Maryland’s defensive meltdown allowed Michigan to win on a pair of free throws.

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Against the Hoosiers, Cowan missed a 25-footer to tie the game with 6 seconds remaining after not completely running the play designed to get Huerter a 3-pointer off a back screen.

Not that Huerter puts more emphasis on those kinds of shots than he does on others he takes through the course of a game, though he quickly says he treats them all the same.

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“It kind of comes down to mental toughness,” Huerter said. "If you’re able to block out the crowd and the magnitude of the moment when you’re taking the shots, you just go back to how many times you’ve taken that 3 from this spot in your life.

“The Michigan shot was wide open. Josh [Tomaic] set a great screen. ... When it went in, I wasn’t surprised because it’s a shot I’ve made before. When it comes down to whether guys can take the last shot in a game, I think it’s as much mental as physical.”

There was also a game this season against Purdue when Maryland coach Mark Turgeon had drawn up a play for Huerter to take a potential tying 3-point shot in the final seconds.

Recalling that he took a 3-pointer in a similar situation against the Boilermakers last season when most figured Melo Trimble would be called upon, Huerter suggested that he be the decoy this time.

As Huerter missed last season from the right corner, senior wing Jared Nickens missed this time from the left corner. Huerter didn’t second-guess himself for the suggestion nor blame Nickens for the miss.

“I had Carsen [Edwards] on me, the same guy who was guarding me the year before; they kind of knew what was coming,” Huerter said. “I came off the first screen and again I had two people’s eyes on me, making sure I didn’t get a shot. Jared got a wide-open look. It’s a game he didn’t knock it down like I didn’t knock it down the year before.”

Rather than regretting those missed opportunities that Trimble seemed to thrive on — including making a 3-pointer to beat the Spartans at Xfinity Center last year on senior day — Huerter looks at a bigger picture.

“I think that’s kind of the growing and learning curve that I’ve had to go through the last couple of games [Maryland lost], realizing why I need to take tougher shots and try to make more plays,” Huerter said.

It is part of the progression Turgeon has seen in a player who, like Cowan, has started every game since coming to Maryland. A three-time captain in high school, Huerter has a similar role this season, if still unofficially.

Looking at Bruno Fernando's injury, Maryland fans and a lack of a backup point guard behind Anthony Cowan Jr.

“I think he’s made the biggest jump in leadership, and just being comfortable kind of being ‘the guy’ at such a young age,” Turgeon said Saturday. “I think that’s where he’s come the most.”

It doesn’t surprise Tony Dzikas, who coached Huerter all four years in high school.

“Even as a freshman he would hold court with all the older players in the locker room,” Dzikas said Friday. “He controlled the locker room. If we were having a dinner, you could see him dictating the conversation.”

Steve Dagostino, who has trained Huerter since he was in the eighth grade and calls his 3-pointer “the most visibly appealing shot in the country, it’s so effortless,” said that his teaching philosophy is geared toward repetition as well as the mental side of the game.

“We try to get to a point where if they’re hitting 80 percent [of 3-pointers] in a workout, they’re ticked,” Dagostino said Friday. “When he misses one or two, he comes back and hits six, seven, eight in a row.”

Huerter, whose 3-point shooting has jumped from 37.1 percent last season to 47.1 percent this year, and whose overall shooting has gone from 42 percent to 52.2 percent, credits Trimble with helping him understand how to hunt down big shots.

“Melo had a lot of mental toughness,” Huerter said. “He wasn’t fazed by any moment. What a lot of us learned, and why we were so good on the road [last year going 7-2 in the Big Ten], we could go in any arena and it could be as loud as it was and he would have the same face on.”

After starting slowly in games earlier in the season, Huerter had made an effort to be more aggressive from the tip, such as when he scored 14 points in the first 13 minutes against Michigan State on Jan. 4 in East Lansing, Mich.

Turnovers, depth and late-game decision-making hurt Maryland in 71-68 loss Monday at Indiana.

Huerter hit his first four shots — a pair of 3-pointers, a reverse lob layup and a three-point play — to keep the Terps competitive. Foul trouble on big men Michal Cekovsky and Bruno Fernando allowed the Spartans to focus on Huerter, who scored two points the rest of the night.

Other teams have taken a similar approach in subsequent games.

“We’ve kind of realized that it’s getting tougher and tougher to call sets for me just to get shots,” Huerter said Friday. “Every team I run off baseline screens, or come off ball screens and they double it. That’s a credit that these teams are well-coached.”

Asked what he could do differently, Huerter said: “I think it has to do with a little bit of everything, me trying to get open a little bit more, setting my man up. Other people setting screens, just trying to move the ball and finding each other.”

Huerter knows that his growth as a player offensively has to come in being a little more unpredictable, mixing up the 3-point shots that opponents have come to expect with his ability to drive and get to the free-throw line.

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“Getting to the basket and getting fouled is something I’m going to work on, because that will give us a chance to catch our breath, put pressure on the defense and get guys in foul trouble,” Huerter said, “just taking my game inside the 3-point line, trying to get to the line and make it easier [to score].”

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