Provo • For three halves of basketball last week — the entire game against No. 4 Gonzaga on Thursday and the first 20 minutes against Loyola Marymount on Saturday — BYU’s season appeared to be on the verge of circling the drain.
Then freshman forward Gavin Baxter and junior guard Nick Emery rescued the Cougars, combining for 31 points in the second half as BYU outscored LMU 44-23 in the final 20 minutes to take a tougher-than-it-looks 67-49 win at the Marriott Center. It was quite the recovery, after BYU was pummeled 93-63 by the powerful Zags on Thursday and fell behind 26-23 to the Lions in the first half Saturday.
Where have these guys been all season? That was the big question, especially regarding the 6-foot-9, uber-athletic Baxter, who made his first career start and finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds, both career highs.
Would the Cougars, suddenly in second place in the West Coast Conference standings with a 6-3 league record, 14-10 overall, have won more games if Baxter had been utilized more in the past? He had been playing more lately but was still averaging just 10.3 minutes per game.
“It was awesome, just growing up here [in Provo], I always wanted to play at BYU and get my first career start, and having a night like tonight for the fans was just awesome,” Baxter said. “I don’t think you could have scripted it any better than what happened.”
Emery scored a season-high 17 points and made five 3-pointers without a miss, tied for second-most attempts without a miss in a single game in BYU history. He has mostly struggled offensively since rejoining the team in mid-December, so his fluctuating minutes have been understandable.
But why didn’t the coaching staff recognize sooner what they had in Baxter?
That’s a complicated question, coach Dave Rose said.
“Gavin and I have talked about this for the last couple of weeks,” Rose said. “Obviously, everybody wants to start. I wanted to make sure he felt comfortable with the decision. We have talked about it a couple, two or three different times during the year and tonight was good. Tonight was right and he really responded in a positive manner. He was tremendous.”
Baxter and Emery combined to make seven 3-pointers, six in the second half. The other Cougars were 0-for-11 from long range against LMU.
“Making 3-pointers is in [Baxter’s] game, that’s in his future,” Rose said. “Him being able to make two tonight really helped. We have been waiting for those two guys to break out and do that. That’s a really good sign for our team.”
* If not for Gonzaga, an all-star loaded squad that almost certainly won’t lose a league game this season, the WCC race would be quite interesting. That said, the battle for second place — BYU, San Francisco, Saint Mary’s and San Diego are in the thick of it — is ultra-important this year because the No. 2 seed gets a double-bye into the semifinals in the conference tournament.
* Baxter and Emery got the accolades, but Saturday’s unsung hero was starting senior point guard McKay Cannon, who had a career-high seven assists and put the defensive clamps on LMU’s James Batemon, who didn’t score after entering the game with a 17.4 average.
“That’s becoming a habit for McKay, as far as his defensive play on some of these really good offensive point guards in the league,” Rose said. “He’s really taken a step forward in the last month or so.”
* While one freshman, Baxter, is emerging, another has seemingly hit a wall. Starting wing Connor Harding was just 3 of 10 from the field in the two games and played only nine minutes against LMU after logging 21 against Gonzaga. Harding hasn’t reached double figures in scoring since Dec. 12 vs. Portland State.
Player of the week
Gavin Baxter. His play against LMU re-energized the Cougars just when they needed it most. He’s now averaging 4.0 points and 2.4 rebounds per game — modest numbers considering what he was able to do Saturday night.
Play of the week
Connor Harding’s drive. Let’s think outside the box on this one and give it to Harding, who drove right at LMU’s 7-foot-3 Mattias Markusson and drew a foul on the big guy a minute into Saturday’s game. Markusson picked up his second foul two minutes later and his third foul late in the first half and logged only 23 minutes in the game.
“We don’t normally go after and try to get guys in foul trouble and isolate certain guys, or whatever,” Rose said. “But tonight I felt it was really important that we go right at this big kid. I mean, he has really improved. He just changes the whole game when he is on the floor.”
The Cougars head back out on the road to face last-place Portland (0-9, 7-17) on Thursday, then return home to host Pacific (3-6, 13-11) at the Marriott Center on Saturday. BYU routed the Pilots 79-56 back on Jan. 10, but games at Chiles Center are never easy and Portland features some outstanding guards in JoJo Walker and Marcus Shaver Jr.