Los Angeles • Less than five months after suffering a possible season-ending injury, sophomore Gavin Baxter put aside the option of redshirting this season and instead returned to the Cougars.
The 6-foot-9 forward, who tore his labrum during a preseason practice in late September, made his comeback in last week's win against San Francisco and saw some added action at Loyola Marymount on Thursday.
He should see some more time at San Diego on Saturday.
For Baxter, it was never a question of if he'd be able to play again this season, but when.
“When I got my shoulder injury, the doctors told me the season's done,” Baxter said. “But I didn't want it to end that way. So, I worked hard and I got back in and walking back on the court is amazing. It's a great feeling for sure.”
Even though his contributions have been on the small scale so far (Baxter has checked in for a total of 12 minutes over the last two games), the Provo native has shown glimpses of ways he can help the Cougars down the stretch of the season.
Although the 6-foot-9 forward has yet to score, Baxter brought down three rebounds, dished out two assists and made a block in Thursday’s resounding 77-54 win at Loyola Marymount.
Last week, coach Mark Pope said this week was going to be a big opportunity to get Baxter back and incorporated into the team. At the start of the week, Baxter traded in his bright red practice jersey for a navy blue one — which meant he was cleared for live practice.
“I think Gavin's going to really help us,” Pope said. “I think he's going to help us in a big way. He's got to get comfortable.”
As a freshman last season, Baxter set the BYU record for field goal percentage in a single season (minimum 50 field goals made) with 65% shooting from the field. The then-freshman scored in double figures four times and had 20-plus points once. Baxter was also named to the All-WCC Freshman Team.
Before the season started, Pope was looking for Baxter to continue to build on last year’s success and help lead his Cougars. Instead, Baxter was one of several players that fell to the injury bug before the season even started.
Teammate Dalton Nixon has been able to relate to Baxter’s struggle this year.
“I feel for him because I had a similar operation on my shoulder two years ago and I know how hard it is to come back,” Nixon said. “And it's really hard to overcome the mental part of it, just to have the confidence to go out there and go 100%, but Gavin's doing a great job and he's going to be a huge key to this as we bring this puzzle together toward the end of the season.”
Baxter actually had two options following his injury — he could have just rehabbed it and seen how it was recovering and not really had a set date of when he could get back into action, or he could have had surgery and been out 4-6 months. Baxter opted for the surgery and, luckily for him, his shoulder recovered in the shorter four-month span to allow him to come back at the end of the season — even if he’s still working to get back to where he was pre-injury.
“It wasn’t too much of a concern for me,” Baxter said. “I mean, this team is a special group. So I just wanted to help in any way possible. Whether I play five games or limited minutes here, it doesn’t really matter to me — I just want to help the team.”
Even though Baxter wasn't able to play or even practice with the team during his recovery, it didn't stop the sophomore from being there alongside his teammates every day. And he made sure to keep hitting the weight room and do as much as he could do without using his shoulder.
For senior Yoeli Childs, seeing Baxter go back out on the court was a thrilling experience.
“That dude’s worked so hard,” senior Yoeli Childs said. “You can’t imagine the work he’s been putting in every single day — doing sprints on the court, agility work, lifting. Every single day, this dude has just been working his butt off. His determination to bring 100% effort every day has been incredible. It’s going to show, as he gets more comfortable out there and gets more minutes and gets back in the swing of things, it’s really going to show. He’s going to be huge for us.”
The Cougars only have four regular-season games left, but then have the West Coast Conference Tournament and appear poised to return to the NCAA Tournament. So, there will be ample opportunity for Baxter to record more minutes and help his Cougars.
“He is going to help us win games,” Pope said. “He so desperately wanted to be a part of this thing. He wanted to put a jersey on so badly. His parents were really supportive of that, and he is going to help us win. We’ve got a chance. We have a chance to make some noise and do some things … but right now we’re still on the hunt.”
BYU AT SAN DIEGO
At Jenny Craig Pavillion, San Diego
Tipoff » Saturday, 8 p.m. MST
TV » CBS Sports Network
Radio » KSL-AM 1160, KSL-FM 102.7, Sirius XM 143.
Records » BYU 20-7, 9-3; USD 9-18, 2-10.
Series » BYU leads, 17-6
Last meeting » BYU 93, USD 70 (Jan. 16, 2020)
About BYU » The Cougars have won five straight after defeating Loyola Marymount 77-54 on Thursday. … At LMU, the Cougars made 18 3-pointers for a new school record for 3s in a game. The previous record of 17 had been set four times, including twice this season. … Yoeli Childs reached 1,000 rebounds for his career, becoming just the second Cougar to reach the milestone. He is just the fourth player in WCC history with 1,800 career points and 1,000 rebounds.
About USD » The Toreros are coming off a heartbreaker, with Pepperdine edging USD 72-69 on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Colbey Ross. … Braun Hartfield led the Toreros with 26 points on 10 of 15 shooting from the field and 5 of 8 shooting from the 3-point line. … In the last four games, Hartfield is averaging 23.5 points.