Gavin Baxter might have caught LMU by surprise, but now the secret is out: BYU’s freshman forward has considerable game

Cougars take their big man and newfound confidence to Portland on Thursday to test the last-place Pilots

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars forward Gavin Baxter (25) as BYU hosts Northwestern State, NCAA basketball at the Marriott Center in Provo on Tuesday Nov. 13, 2018.

Provo • Gavin Baxter says his life didn’t change much after his career night in Saturday’s 67-49 win over Loyola Marymount, but the BYU Cougars believe that the freshman forward’s long-awaited breakout game changes theirs.

“Hopefully it can give us all some confidence, and it isn’t just a one-time thing,” coach Dave Rose said Tuesday after the Cougars practiced in the Marriott Center Annex — their basketball practice facility — and prepared for Thursday’s game at Portland.

Baxter made his first career start against the Lions and posted career highs of 25 points and 10 rebounds. He became the fifth Cougar to score at least 20 points and grab 10 rebounds in his first start and only the second freshman — joining Shawn Bradley, who had 23 points and 14 rebounds in his BYU debut on Nov. 14, 1990, against East Tennessee State.

Baxter said that other than a few more students and professors mentioning his 10-of-14 shooting performance or his four dunks in classes Monday and Tuesday, his life “hasn’t really changed in a significant way.”

But he also knows that his life on the court will change a lot, because now teams know about the athletic, 6-foot-9 jumping jack from Timpview High who returned from a two-year church mission to Washington, D.C., last summer.

“I think after a game like that, teams are going to have to probably change their defensive schemes up somewhat,” Baxter said. “Because a lot of times they have been doubling Yoeli [Childs] and that leads to a lot of open shots for other guys. If I can continue to perform well then that is just going to open even more things up so teams will have to switch up their defense even more.”

Baxter played a career-high 32 minutes, after having surpassed 20 minutes of playing time in three other games — 23 at Pepperdine, 27 at home against Saint Mary’s and 25 in the disastrous 93-63 loss to No. 4 Gonzaga at the end of January.

“LMU isn’t like a crazy, fast-paced team, so I think that helped me,” he said of his conditioning level. “At the end of the game, I felt great.”

Rose said Baxter’s biggest challenge now will be that he will appear on every opponent’s scouting report, and they will take away a lot of things he was able to do Saturday such as run the baseline freely and dunk lob passes from BYU’s guards.

“But that game will really help us, because they can’t make such a commitment to Yoeli,” Rose said. “Gav’s got a much better feel down in there. He’s never really played there. He has always kind of been a perimeter guy, or a guy up in the high post. We got him kinda playing a lot different than what he has been doing, and he is starting to feel a lot more comfortable with it.”

Emery’s increased output

Baxter wasn’t the only Cougar who emerged from the LMU win with a new sense of confidence. Junior guard Nick Emery was 5 of 5 from 3-point range for a season-high 17 points, and also added a season-best four steals. Emery’s five makes without a miss is tied for the third-most 3-pointers without a miss in school history. Nathan Call and Brock Zylstra both went 6 for 6 from deep in one game in their careers.

“Nick’s ability on the defensive perimeter will also help,” Rose said. “His hands were so active in that game the other night, knocking balls away. Offensively, having another scoring guard [to complement TJ Haws] will help, too.”

Problems in Portland

Portland (0-9, 7-17) sits at the bottom of the WCC standings, was thrashed 79-56 by BYU four weeks ago and has defeated the Cougars only two times in 21 tries. However, the Pilots always seem to give BYU a good game at Chiles Center, and knocked off BYU 84-81 in 2016 at home.

“They play really well against us in there,” Rose said. “We bring a nice [pro-BYU] crowd to that gym. We’ve always felt that maybe that is a little different, that maybe they get a little extra motivation, that they don’t want to not play well in their gym when everybody is in there cheering against them.”

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