ST. PETERSBURG — The mood was grim along the Gibbs’ bench through most of the first half Tuesday night at Eckerd.
There were turnovers, missed shots and a lackadaisical defensive effort. Even worse, two of the Gladiators’ best players, Barry Brown and Sajon Ford, were sidelined with foul trouble and watched as rival Lakewood scored seemingly at will.
At halftime, the Gladiators trailed by 17 points.
But any doubts about Gibbs’ ability to rally were expunged in the third quarter during a 24-2 run that swung the momentum back toward the Gladiators. After that, Gibbs held on for a wild 61-57 victory.
“For some reason, we just weren’t being aggressive on the defensive end,” Gladiators coach Larry Murphy said. “We allowed 38 points in the first half. That’s the most we’ve allowed in a half this season. That’s not us.
“We needed to get back to playing our brand of basketball.”
The Gladiators (12-2) did it by sticking to what they do best. They pressed and hurried the tempo. They hit clutch shots. They never panicked.
Brown, who reentered the game in the third quarter, led the turnaround with a team-high 24 points, including 15 in the third.
“I was anxious to get back out there and help my team,” Brown said. “We needed a push and I felt I had to take it upon myself to take over the game. I owed that to my teammates after sitting most of the first half.”
By the end of the third quarter, Gibbs was ahead 47-43.
The past two years, this has been a series that has been defined by close results with twists and turns that have tested both teams.
In the fourth quarter, the game morphed into a tense prizefight between like-minded opponents who never lost faith in their ability to beat each other up.
There was no shaking off the Spartans (6-6), who rebounded from that dizzying third-quarter run by the Gladiators. Lakewood’s Anthony Lawrence, who finished with 16 points, scored on a mid-range jumper that cut it to 58-57 with 15.2 seconds remaining.
Gibbs was dealt a potential blow when guard Shaq Speights fouled out in the final minute. But the Gladiators sealed it by coming up with crucial rebounds and making 3-of-4 free throws down the stretch, including the final two by Brown with three seconds remaining.
“We just had to stay focused and come out hard in the second half,” Brown said. “We’ll have to do it again because we know we’ll see them again this season.”