LAKELAND — Gibbs was able to keep Friday’s Class 5A state boys basketball semifinal against Lake Wales close — at least for the first quarter.
Then things fell apart.
Basketballs kept clanging off the rim. Passes were stolen. The defense was too slow to recover.
The Highlanders offense became unhinged. Starters, reserves …it didn’t matter. Everyone kept finding their way to the basket.
Suddenly, the frenzy was on and every possession seemingly produced a score. It was like an adding machine gone wild and a tight game became a blowout.
After trailing by one in the first quarter, the Gladiators were outscored 24-7 in the second. That hole was too much to overcome in a 63-45 loss.
“They make you work for every possession,” Gibbs coach Larry Murphy said. “Nothing comes easy with their defense. That’s something we don’t see that often in Pinellas County. We’re usually the ones that are doing that to other teams.”
The Gladiators (23-8) already knew what it was like to face this kind of ultra-quick defense after losing to Lake Wales by 14 in a tournament in January.
Still, Gibbs was not prepared for this.
The Highlanders defense extended to every cranny on the Lakeland Center court. The essence of the pressure was to wear down the Gladiators mentally and physically.
Gibbs looked fine in the first quarter, opening with a 4-0 lead. Lake Wales came back and the teams traded leads three times before the Highlanders closed out the quarter with a basket to take an 11-10 lead.
In the second quarter, though, the Gladiators felt the heat.
Unable to withstand Lake Wales’ defense, Gibbs was outscored 13-1 to start the quarter. It kept getting worse and the Gladiators went into halftime trailing 35-17.
“We knew what to expect,” Murphy said. “(Lake Wales) got on us quick the first time we played them and we fell behind by as many as 25 points in the first half. We played with them for the first quarter this time. Then they just dialed up the pressure.”
The Highlanders were extremely successful at flicking away a dribble or pass from behind if Gibbs got caught in the initial trap. Even when the Gladiators were able to break from the press, they still had to account for Lake Wales’ whereabouts.
In all, Gibbs committed 10 turnovers in the first half and shot 25 percent (7-of-27).
“It was tough because of their defense,” said Gladiators forward Quincy Ford, who finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds. “(Lake Wales) plays hard. They’re aggressive and fast. It was just hard to get anything going.”
The second quarter proved costly considering Gibbs stayed within a point in the final two.
The Gladiators cut the deficit to 14 points in the fourth quarter but could never get within striking distance.
Gary Simon led Gibbs with 18 points. But the Gladiators never could find much balance with Simon and Ford combining for 31 of the team’s 45 points.
As the final seconds ticked away, the Gibbs faithful who came in droves started making their way toward the exits. This was the first time the Gladiators made it to the state tournament since 1990.
“We had to work to get our way out of a deficit, and it was tough,” Murphy said. “But I’m proud of this team. This was our goal from the start of the season, to get here.”