Maryland basketball coach Mark Turgeon talks about the Terps win over Northwestern. (Don Markus/Baltimore Sun video)
COLLEGE PARK — In a season of frustrating losses and not-so-impressive wins, Maryland’s victory Saturday afternoon was both satisfying and worth celebrating.
While it came against another team that has unexpectedly struggled, Northwestern entered Xfinity Center fresh off a 61-52 win over No. 20 Michigan, its fourth in five games.
Neither the Terps nor Wildcats are currently in the NCAA tournament conversation, but both have the talent to upset those with bids locked up and others on the bubble at this year’s Big Ten tournament.
Northwestern had seemingly figured out how to win lately with a matchup zone — until Kevin Huerter and some of his teammates ripped it apart in the first half.
Here are a few observations and opinions from Maryland's 73-57 win over Northwestern:
Maryland plays some defense
It wasn’t an aberration how poorly the Terps played on the defensive end in Wednesday’s 74-70 loss at Penn State. They have been bad for most of the Big Ten season, especially on the road, playing both short-handed and, well, short.
It’s interesting that one of Maryland’s best defensive efforts this season was against a team that probably runs more offensive sets — Huerter estimated “about 40” — than anyone in the Big Ten.
Two things stuck out about Maryland’s defense.
Tthe Terps were relentless in the way they tag-teamed the coverage on Northwestern senior guard Bryant McIntosh, who went scoreless for the first time in his career.
Not only did Anthony Cowan Jr. use his quickness to negate the advantage in height and weight the 6-foot-3, 200-pound McIntosh had over the 6-foot, 170-pound Cowan, but the other Terps helped their point guard get through ball screens.
The return of senior center Michal Cekovsky, who played 15 minutes after missing the previous three games with a bruised heel, came four days after the Nittany Lions nearly scored at will at times, especially when getting freed up with a ball screen.
The combination of Cekovsky, who came off the bench, and freshman center Bruno Fernando allowed Maryland to keep the Wildcats from many second-chance points despite Northwestern finishing with 14 offensive rebounds.
Terps need more from Fernando
Playing against a team with 6-8, 235-pound junior Dererk Pardon as its center, Fernando went without a field goal for the first time all season. He only took three shots, and was fouled on one, making a pair of free throws for his only points.
Part of it was the fact that the Terps, who tried to play inside-out, were able to get good looks and connect on nine of 21 3-pointers, including seven of their first 10. Part of it also was that Fernando, unlike some other games, was able to pass out of double teams.
Still, Fernando has to be more of a consistent offensive weapon for the Terps to be effective, especially in games when their 3-points shots are not falling. He was a monster against Purdue’s Isaac Haas (20 points on 8-for-12 shooting), so the potential is there.
Part of Fernando’s progress Saturday came in the fact that he committed just one turnover after having 12 the previous three games, including six in the loss at Penn State. He also had three blocks Saturday, after having no more than one in any previous Big Ten game.
Getting Cekovsky back will allow Fernando to play more aggressively on defense, something coach Mark Turgeon said he might have not have been doing in fear of getting in foul trouble with the Terps so thin up front.
Maryland fans can usually count on Huerter giving an honest effort.
Even when his shot isn’t falling like it was early Saturday — he hit his first four shots and finished 7-for-12 en route to a game-high 22 points — Huerter rebounds, plays defense and gets his teammates involved.
Reporters who have covered Huerter the past two years, and probably those who covered him during his high school years in upstate New York, can also count on getting an honest answer to their questions.
While Huerter rarely criticizes his teammates, he will collectively blame the entire group for taking bad shots, as he did after the loss at Indiana, or playing soft defense, as he did after the loss to the Nittany Lions.
Nor is he prone to exaggeration. Asked Saturday whether the blowout victory over the Wildcats qualified as a “signature win” that could impress the NCAA tournament selection committee, a small smirk creased a corner of Huerter’s mouth.
“I don’t think so,” Huerter said. “A signature win I think for us would be on the road against a team in the top tier of the league. [Northwestern] has been playing really well as of late, but they are in kind of a similar position to us in terms of where we are in league standings. It was a good home win, I don’t think we can call it a signature win yet.”