Inspired Baxter splashes in paint

UM rolling on strength of sophomore center

February 08, 2000|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- As NBA scouts trek across the country to catch a glimpse of Maryland's Terence Morris, Terrapins center Lonny Baxter dresses in front of a locker that has had his name misspelled as "Lonnie" for the past two seasons.

Morris has been bestowed an All-America resume, and Baxter remains the same low-key player who shies away from being the center of attention. But Baxter doesn't have much of a choice now with the sudden role reversal, does he?

Two days ago, Baxter set career highs with 31 points and seven blocks in a comeback win over North Carolina State that culminated in students rushing the floor around him and chanting his name. Spurring No. 23 Maryland's three-game winning streak, the Silver Spring native has shed that laid-back demeanor on the court to average 26.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.3 blocks with a new forceful edge to his game.

"It feels good, but I just worry about staying focused on basketball and getting the next win," said Baxter, a sophomore who received his first Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Week honor yesterday. "I think I have gotten more emotional. We need emotion out there on the court when we're playing. I try to let it out as much as I can."

And the displays are hard to miss.

During a one-minute stretch Sunday, the 6-foot-8, 265-pound center led a fast break that included a behind-the-back dribble and then howled at the other end when he wrestled down a defensive rebound with two Wolfpack players hanging on him. Baxter consistently bullied for position on the blocks, aggressively drove to the basket and battled for six offensive rebounds.

"As time goes, he gets confidence," coach Gary Williams said. "When you have success, it usually moves you up a notch."

In his first six ACC games, Baxter managed 13 points a game. He started to not call for the ball inside, and his teammates began looking for the perimeter shot first.

Baxter's production fizzled at North Carolina on Jan. 27, when he took eight shots and the Terrapins launched 27 three-pointers. The next day, Williams emphasized post play and delivered an instruction to Baxter.

"We stressed that he was doing too much when he got the ball inside instead of taking it to the basket," Williams said. "Maybe it's because he's 6-foot-8 instead of 6-11. But he's quick enough to score when he gets it even though he has that 265-pound size. It's hard to double team him when he gets it."

In other words, Williams wanted Baxter to become more assertive. But that's out of character for a guy who only raises his voice when he is beating a teammate on his NBA video game.

Plus, Baxter had settled into a comfort level as a complementary player. In his high school senior season at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, he played alongside Korleone Young, who became an NBA first-round pick the next year but is now averaging 12.6 points for the International Basketball League's Richmond Rhythm.

"Nobody outside of the D.C. area really knew about Lonny," said Scott Shepherd, a first-year assistant at Virginia who coached Baxter at Hargrave. "We just counted on his 15 to 16 points every night."

When Baxter arrived at Maryland, he carried some flab along with the instability of playing at a different high school in each of the past three years. He stumbled upon a starting job last February, when Obinna Ekezie suffered a season-ending injury, but the foundation for improvement was laid in the summer.

Baxter was the only player to attend every workout in Maryland's two six-week summer sessions, which included two days of running and four days of weightlifting. Strength coach Kurtis Shultz didn't realize that Baxter had never missed until checking his attendance sheet because Baxter was so quiet. Shultz estimated that Baxter lost at least 9 percent body fat since last spring and said that he has had to coax Baxter at times.

"I think he was a little uncomfortable before in the weight room," Shultz said. "Now he's getting that comfort zone where he can push through things now."

Like Sunday, when Baxter played the entire second half and had enough resilience to score the game-winning jumper with 1: 14 remaining He celebrated by jumping, shouting and pumping his fist into the air.

Baxter soon returned to his reserved self as he buzzed straight home afterward and relaxed by drinking some fruit juice. He woke up early to lift weights at 9 a.m. and rounded out an afternoon of school with a Women's Studies class before heading to practice.

Then, in his usual low-pitched tone, he tried to convey the effect of the past week.

"I feel I've come a long way," Baxter said. "The roles have changed a lot here. But I'm happy doing what I can."

Coming on strong

Maryland center Lonny Baxter, who had 78 points in his first six Atlantic Coast Conference games this season, has scored 79 in his past three. He has averaged 26.3 points -- nearly a point a minute -- and 8.3 rebounds over that span.

........................................ ...................................Rebounds

Date ....Opponent ............Min. ....FG-FGA .....Off. ....Def. ....Tot. .....Pts.

1-29 ...at Florida State ......25 ..........8-16 .........5 ........2 ........7 ..........24

2-2 ..........Virginia ..............31 ..........9-14 .........3 ........5 ........8 ..........24

2-6 ........N.C. State ...........33 .........14-22 ........6 ........4 .......10 .........31

Totals ................................89 .........31-52 .......14 .......11 .....25 .........79

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