PROVO — Gavin Baxter didn’t exactly fill up his stat line in BYU’s 91-78 victory over Gonzaga last Saturday night, scoring just four points and grabbing just one rebound in his eight minutes on the court.
But coach Mark Pope says the newly minted No. 17 Cougars would not have pulled off the upset without the 6-foot-9 sophomore’s contributions, even if BYU was outscored by nine points when the Timpview High product was in the game. It was Baxter’s fifth game back after he sustained a shoulder injury in practice last September that caused him to miss the first 25 games.
“I fought with him for four months and two weeks, trying to talk him out of coming back,” Pope said. “And he was like, ‘no, I am coming back to help this team.’ If Gavin Baxter doesn’t come back, we don’t get this night. We just can’t do it. We just didn’t have the bodies.”
Baxter scored his first points of the season, getting a putback dunk for his first basket, and was 2 for 2 from the field. But it was his defense on GU’s imposing frontline of Filip Petrusev and Killian Tillie that kept the Cougars from sinking when the Zags took an early 14-8 lead, Pope said.
“Think about that — he came back without the guarantee he was going to get tonight, that this team was going to get tonight,” Pope said. “But he came back, just with faith, and just wanting so much to help this team. And then we get to have tonight.”
And what a night it was.
Students stormed the court for just the second time in the history of the Marriott Center, which turns 50 next year, and first time since No. 9 BYU knocked off No. 4 San Diego State in 2011.
“It is so cool because every single guy on our team has had a part in this,” said Yoeli Childs, who led the way with 28 points and 10 rebounds.
Before the Cougars (12-3, 23-7) downed Santa Clara and Gonzaga to maintain their grip on second place in the West Coast Conference, Baxter said his shoulder was pain-free and a “solid eight or nine” on a scale of 1-10 when asked if he was completely healed, but said he is still trying to get his full range of motion back.
He said the hardest part about returning has been psychological, and rediscovering the confidence he displayed at the end of last year when he overcame a slow start with some outstanding games during the latter half of the 2018-19 season. He finished averaging 4.7 points and 3.1 rebounds in 14.7 minutes per game.
He is averaging just 8.1 minutes per game since making his season debut in BYU’s 90-76 win over San Francisco on Feb. 8.
“Yeah, I think that’s the hard part, the mental side of it,” he said. “Honestly, it has been a roller coaster. I don’t know if there is a great way to prepare for the season three or four months late. But it just has been a game-by-game thing, just getting more and more comfortable each game. So it has been good so far.”
Baxter said there have been no regrets, even though he will only have two more years of college basketball eligibility remaining.
“I am just trying to contribute in whatever way possible,” he said. “Of course, it is hard getting integrated back into the lineup. I gotta figure that out, still. Our goal is just to make a run and see how far we can make it, and I want to be a part of that. That’s why I came back. If I can help in any way, that’s what I will try to do.”
Pope said last week that Baxter is “unfazed by the lights” and doesn’t get “twisted up” by the pressure of playing in front of thousands of fans. His return is a “process” that is going to take time, BYU’s first-year coach said.
“It’s just more about him getting enough reps that he can get in the flow,” Pope said. “Not only did he sit out four months, he walked back into a coach and philosophy that he doesn’t recognize in the sense of having played for it, right? He is fighting all that stuff.”
Baxter said the decision was made a bit easier because he’s on track to graduate after four years, perhaps a semester sooner than that.
“Right now, I am in global studies, which is in the geography department,” he said. “I think I am actually pretty far along. If I did every term now until next summer (2021), I could graduate. But I don’t know if I will do that. I might break it up a bit. But I’m happy that I am pretty far along academically.”
Childs, who is one of Baxter’s best friends on the team, said it is just a matter of time before the big guy breaks out and takes some pressure off himself and Kolby Lee inside.
“His timing and instincts are getting up to par the longer is he is out there,” Childs said. “I mean, he is a sophomore who hasn’t played in almost a year. He is definitely getting there. He is getting better every day in practice. There will come a game where we will need him to score 20 points, the way they are guarding us. But if he just continues to progress, he will be great.”
Childs said Baxter’s progress off the court has been amazing to watch.
“His maturity has increased a ton,” Childs said. “His ability to fight through frustration has increased. He is really becoming a man. He is learning how to fight through adversity and he has been so positive and so energetic and so encouraging to his teammates through this whole process. It has been inspiring to watch.”
Gavin Baxter’s slow return
Feb. 8 vs. San Francisco: 3 minutes, 1 rebound, 0 points
Feb. 13 vs. Loyola Marymount: 9 minutes, 3 rebounds, 0 points
Feb. 15 vs. San Diego: 13 minutes, 3 rebounds, 0 points
Feb. 20 vs. Santa Clara: 7 minutes, 0 rebounds, 0 points
Feb. 22 vs. Gonzaga: 8 minutes, 1 rebound, 4 points