CLEARWATER — They were all moving downcourt. Ten players, five of them defeated, five of them as spry as rabbits.
So it was not surprising that after Countryside guards went to the rim and missed, it was a Gibbs player who left the floor like a rocket to grab the ball.
While the Cougars stood panting, the Gladiators gathered errant layups and quickly turned them into transition points. It was those kind of sequences that had Countryside fading faster than its transition game. Gibbs took advantage, leading by at least 20 points most of the second half to cruise to a 54-31 win in the fCougar Classic final.
The Gladiators (13-2) have won 10 straight, including their second tournament title during the holiday break.
“It all starts with defense,” Gibbs coach Larry Murphy said. “We started playing strong defensively right from the start and kind of set the tone and dictated the pace for the rest of the game.”
The Gladiators defense stretches from every nook and cranny on the court. If they’re not beating offenses with their quickness, they’re doing it with their length. Surrounding and protecting the rim like an offensive line, Gibbs held Countryside to single digits in scoring in each quarter.
“(Gibbs) was just so much more athletic than we were,” Cougars coach Myron Huey said.
Huey knew all about the Gladiators’ speed and wanted to use crisp passes and long possessions to slow down the game. It helped as Countryside (10-6) started hot, running to a 4-0 lead. But the Gladiators got back quickly on defense, denying most passes and leaving the Cougars to falter in the halfcourt.
On offense, Gibbs turned to Shaquille Speights, who weaved his way inside to score 10 points in the first quarter and 12 by halftime.
“Everything was working well in transition, and I was able to get the ball,” Speights said. “But it all started with defense.”
By the end of the third quarter, the Gladiators led 43-24. Gibbs was balanced on offense with nine players scoring. Speghts led with 12 points, while Barry Brown and Corion Williams each had 10.
Kam Smith scored a team-high 11 points for the Cougars. Darnell Lovett, who revitalized Countryside with his scoring ability this season, was held to nine points.
The next two weeks, Gibbs’ win streak will be put to the test with games against Bradenton Southeast, Fort Myers and Boca Ciega.
“I’m pleased where we are at this point in the season,” Murphy said. “But it’s only going to get tougher from here. Pretty much every game is tough from now on.”