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Courtesy: David Barfield
Freshman Stepping Up for Bearkats
Courtesy: Brandon K. Scott/Huntsville Item
Release: 02/11/2013
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With the second half of the Southland Conference regular season schedule upon them, the Bearkats have established an identity as a group of role players, with everyone making similar contributions to the game-to-game outcome.

No one on the team averages double figures in scoring and nine players have led the team in scoring on a given night this season.

There are no star players to speak of - just a scrappy team made mostly of junior college transfers trying to help the Bearkats finish in the top half of the league standings after March 9 when Sam Houston caps off the season on the road against Northwestern State.

But quietly averaging seven points a game is a freshman who appears be the future of the Bearkat men's team. Already, Paul Baxter has joined senior Darius Gatson, juniors Aaron Harwell and DeMarcus Gatlin and sophomore Marquel McKinney as a leader on this team.

It's no accident the freshman worked his way into the Kats' starting lineup by the time conference play began. Against Howard Payne, in the final non-conference game before the league opener, Baxter came off the bench to lead SHSU with 16 points in the 90-49 win. But he only played in the second half.

As for the 16 points, Baxter scored them all within the final 10 minutes of the game. He put in 14 of them in the last 6:08. Sure, the opponent was Howard Payne, providing the perfect stat-game opportunity for all of the Bearkat players. But not long before that matchup, Baxter was still finding his role with the team.

"I've really just tried to come in and be solid," Baxter said after a practice in November. "I've been nervous not knowing what I'm going to do and what to expect really. Now I'm just trying to get rid of the nerves and stuff. I'm really just coming in making sure our senior point guard Darius (Gatson) gets a rest. Scoring if I have to score, getting people the ball when they need the ball. I'm really just trying to facilitate and lead the team whenever Darius is on the bench."

These days, Gatson and Baxter are on the floor at the same time and often, the freshman out of Austin Bowie High School has looked like the Kats' best player. Baxter scored 13 points when he played a team-high 35 minutes in the conference opener against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi - eight more minutes than the next highest. Gatson led the team with 18 points.

Since becoming a starter through the conference schedule, Baxter is third on the team in minutes per game, behind James Thomas and Gatson.

Baxter's biggest game was in a home win against Central Arkansas on Jan. 17, which propelled the Bearkats to a 4-1 start in league play. He dropped 19 points and went a perfect 9-of-9 from the free throw line, including four clutch free throws down the stretch.

"Paul waited his turn all year," Hooten said. "I didn't play him a lot early because he wasn't ready focus wise. Had a few things I think he had to get ironed out with his focus, time management and some stuff off the court. But man when he eventually started to get it figured out it didn't do anything but help his play on the court and now he's playing as good as anybody we have."

Paul isn't the only the Baxter who knows a thing or two about basketball. His father Ron Baxter played for the Texas Longhorns as a member of the 1978 NIT championship squad.

The younger Baxter says basketball didn't come automatic and that baseball seemed to be an early priority. But with his father being a former player, with teammates and resources to help guide him, Paul was placed in a situation he could only take advantage of.

For example, his AAU coach in Austin was Johnny Moore, formerly of the San Antonio Spurs rivaling Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas and the point guards of the 80's. Moore was also Ron Baxter's teammate at Texas and the MVP of the NIT championship team.

When Ron Baxter was asked earlier in the season if his son's game resembles own, the former Longhorn laughed and shook his head.

"Nah. I was a scorer. I was getting mine. And I'm left-handed. He plays like Johnny Moore. He plays more like Johnny than me. He gets everybody involved. You can see he's looking for the pass. But I think more than anything else is since he's a point guard, he recognizes and looks for everybody. I was kind of looking for myself (laughs)."

The Bearkats haven't played many high school recruits since Hooten took over as head coach two seasons ago. The bulk of his recruiting classes have come from the junior college ranks, which has led to some roster turnover even in the midst of successful seasons.

Baxter was the high school recruit that Hooten and assistant coach Chris Mudge had been working on since they got on the job in 2010. Now he's here - on a group that could be undefeated in conference with a couple of breaks here and there - hoping to make up the difference.

"It's not like a one-year thing for me," he said. "It's three more years, almost like four more years left. So by my senior year, I can coach with him and he can do less than what he does now. Not saying anything bad about anyone we have now but he has to coach more because he's getting people out of other situations from where they played differently.

"I know it's going to help a lot being here. I know just seeing Darius after being after a year, it's helped him a lot. And it's like trust, too with Hooten because he trusts Darius a lot and Aaron, too. Aaron's going to be in his third year next year. He trusts those guys and he knows they're going to do the right thing."

Sam Houston State has three home games remaining on its regular season schedule at Bernard G. Johnson Coliseum. The Bearkats will play host to Stephen F. Austin Wednesday, Feb. 20, Nicholls State Thursday Feb. 28 and Southeastern Louisiana Saturday, March 2.

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