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ST. PETERSBURG — Scrawled in shorthand, Gibbs’ season looks something like this: optimism, a stunning upset, recovery, player suspensions, player expulsions, recovery, more optimism.
The optimism rarely wanes with the Gladiators, who are indefatigably cheerful.
The suspensions and adversity rarely wane, either.
In the past month, Shaquille Speights was suspended four weeks by the Florida High School Athletic Association after being ejected for a level-two infraction, Zicari Gibbons was suspended 10 days at school after being charged with a felony for bringing a gun on campus. And Barry Brown was held out for two games by his family for personal reasons.
Yet here is Gibbs, one of four teams in the county still alive in the playoffs. Tonight, the Gladiators (23-5) host Jesuit (27-1) in the Class 5A region semifinals.
With Speights and Brown returning in the past two weeks, Gibbs is nearly at full strength.
“We’ve had to deal with some adversity,” coach Larry Murphy said. “But that has helped us in some ways because we were able to develop more depth and have some other guys step up for us.”
Gibbs started the season with a question mark after graduating county player of the year Gary Simon. But the young Gladiators showed promise in the preseason when they nearly defeated Jesuit. Missed free throws at the end of regulation resulted in a one-point loss. After losing to Pinellas Park, the Gladiators won 15 of 16 games to rocket up the rankings.
Then came the suspensions.
The Gladiators lost two of their final five games in the regular season. But they showed resolve, beating Lakewood and Boca Ciega to secure the top seed in their district.
After two wins in the district tournament, and a victory against Lennard in last week’s region quarterfinals, Gibbs’ season has come full circle with another game against Jesuit that has a lot more meaning.
“We’re motivated,” Speights said. “Everybody keeps doubting us, but we’re confident we can win this game. We just have to keep playing defense, and execute the things we didn’t do as well the first time we played.”
Defense has been the Gladiators’ calling card. In 28 games, Gibbs has allowed just three opponents to score more than 60 points. That statistic will be put to the test against the Tigers, who average 68.8 points per game.
“We just have to get and contain Jesuit’s shooters,” Murphy said. “The biggest thing is the number of 3-point attempts.”
The Gladiators also have to score, and they have the reinforcements to do it. Speights (15.3 points per game) and Brown (14.2) are the team’s leading scorers. And Daniel Davis has emerged as a clutch shooter, with winning shots against Lakewood and Boca Ciega in the past three weeks.
“We have had a lot of people step up and fill roles,” Davis said. “I knew I had to become more of a shooter the past few weeks, and that’s what I did.”
And after withstanding a month of challenges, Gibbs appears to be more tightly knit than in a long time. The Gladiators may also be a better team.
“I think our ability to get through everything shows we’re not just a one- or two-player team,” Brown said. “We’ve come a long way, and we’re a totally different team than the first time we played Jesuit.
“We’ll be ready.”
Chamberlain (21-5) at St. Petersburg (20-7): The Green Devils are trying to reach the region final for the third time in the past four seasons. They have the height advantage with Leandre Thomas (6-foot-8), Ben Clare (6-7) and Jalin Caldwell (6-6).
Sickles (25-4) at Largo (22-5): Donavan Hale had a stellar performance with 22 points, 12 rebounds, five steals and four assists to lift the Packers to an overtime victory over Armwood last week. Another performance like that will be needed against the Gryphons, who have played well the past few weeks.
St. Petersburg Catholic (14-8) at Sarasota Cardinal Mooney (19-3): With Kevin O’Donnell and Ryan Green, the Barons have the scoring to stay in games. SPC, though, will need all the points it can get against a Cardinal Mooney team that can light up the scoreboard, as evidenced by the 92 points the Cougars scored last week against Shorecrest.