GREENWOOD, S.C. -- As the youngster held the basketball in his hands, an imposing presence soon emerged.
Augusta State had just won Saturday's Peach Belt North Division men's title, and 6-foot-10, 280-pound Festus Hawkins found time to play ball with some children. His hands, larger than any of the children's faces, waved in the air as he played defense. That's Festus, the gentle giant on campus.
"Kids come to the games and sometimes you're like heroes to these kids," Hawkins said. "Every player should pay homage to those little kids, because I was once in their shoes. When I'm out there guarding them, and let's say they do score, then probably the topic at school the next day is, `I scored on Festus Hawkins. I scored on an Augusta State player.' That's big to them."
The junior center will play a big role today when the Jaguars open Peach Belt Tournament play against South No. 4 seed Clayton State (11-14) at noon.
Demetric Hymes-Taylor leads the Jaguars with 15.4 points a game, but close behind is Hawkins, averaging 14.6 points and 7.8 rebounds a game.
"I think the key for us in the tournament is, we have to shoot the ball well from the outside," said Hawkins, a Pine Bluff, Ark., native. "If we don't shoot the ball well, then we could have problems. I've got to be a leader any way I can. By any means necessary."
Last season, Hawkins started 15 of 32 games for the University of Illinois. He averaged 6.1 points and 5.3 rebounds a game for coach Lon Kruger's squad.
But Hawkins and Kruger rarely saw eye to eye. In August, Hawkins was released from the program "for failure to take care of personal responsibilities as they relate to the standards that are set for the University of Illinois basketball program," according to Kruger.
"It was like a little petty stuff and a few major things," Hawkins said. "And it all rolled up into personal issues. I don't want to get into the depths of it. Let's just leave it at personal issues.
"I was like the only one who didn't fit in his agenda. I really felt I was vital to the program."
So Hawkins transferred to Augusta State and found new life.
Augusta State found out about Hawkins through Illinois assistant Robert McCullum, and he's given the Jaguars a physical presence with a league-leading 54 blocked shots.
He's even dispelled the myth that big guys can't shoot free throws, converting 43 of his past 48, a 90 percent clip.
"Every day in practice, (assistant) coach (Buck) Harris tells me that if you miss free throws you run. Well, I don't like to run," Hawkins said. "I probably shoot more free throws in practice than anybody on the team."
After averaging 20.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in three Augusta wins last week, Hawkins was named Peach Belt Player of the Week on Monday.
"The past three days have probably been the best of my college career," Hawkins said Tuesday. "Championship, Player of the Week, and No. 1 seed all rolled into one. I don't think it gets any better than this."
It could get better should Augusta State win the tournament and earn a bid to the NCAA Division II Tournament.
"This is the best team I've ever played for," he said. "Guys actually get along with each other, and we care for everybody. You know everybody's going to fight for each other. This right here is the best situation for me."
"He works hard, and he's very, very intelligent. In fact, he's one of the brightest and most unselfish players on our team," Augusta State coach Gary Tuell said.
Hawkins is the biggest player in the Peach Belt. However, sometimes he finds his size a disadvantage. When he has the ball, Hawkins will find opponents flopping to the floor and drawing a foul.
"The worst part about this is, they call a charge when I shoot a fade-away. How can you charge when you fade away? How can you push a guy when you have two hands on the basketball?" Hawkins asked.
In this Peach Belt land of smaller players, Hawkins finds a different world than last year.
"A lot of times in the Big Ten, I wasn't the biggest guy on the court," he said. "This is not a physical conference. The Big Ten is physical. A lot of stuff called here is not a foul in the Big Ten. You know why Michigan State is so good? It's because they beat you up. The best taste we got of that was Utah."
Now that Hawkins has had a season to feel his way through the Peach Belt, he says it may be time for him to take over.
"I feel I pretty much had to restructure my game around the conference," he said. "This is not the Big Ten. This is the Peach Belt. I think I can dominate now. I should. There's not any guys my size. But size doesn't matter."
As for relations with his new coach, Hawkins has no problems with Tuell.
"He's really been patient with me," Hawkins said. "He's more like a mentor-like figure. He's a coach and a friend all in one. If you've got problems, you go see him. He's on your side. He's not going to leave you out there for the wolves, which I wouldn't say about previous situations."
And Tuell has done another thing to help Hawkins.
"I think coach Tuell implicated the best rule when he said, `If you talk to the refs, you don't play.' That's probably the best thing he's said all year. Early in the year, I'd get a foul and that would mess with me for about five to six minutes. Now, we just play. We can't worry about what the refs are going to call."
While Hawkins has unfinished business this season, he plans to work out over the summer and get prepared for his senior year.
"This is my home, this is my team," he said. "I used to bleed orange and white. Now I bleed blue and white."
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 868-1222.
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