ST. PETERSBURG — Last season Gibbs made a glorious run, going 23-8 and advancing to the state semifinals for the first time since 1991.
But any thoughts of a long stay at the top were supposed to be put on hold considering the roster was devoid of veterans.
Entering this season, the deconstructed Gladiators were back to square one. Nine players graduated, including four starters. The biggest loss was Quincy Ford, the Times’ all-county and all-Suncoast player of the year.
With much of the cast gone, Gibbs faced a rebuilding job and many people questioned how the Gladiators would fare.
The answer: even better.
Gibbs, 20-3 this season, is undefeated against county competition, is playing in the Pinellas County Athletic Conference championship game and is heading into next week’s Class 5A, District 12 tournament with the No. 1 seed.
Last season, the Gladiators missed out on the conference championship game and were the No. 2 seed in their district.
“I thought we would still have a pretty good basketball team,” Gibbs coach Larry Murphy said. “But I never thought we would be 20-3 at this point.”
Despite the loss of so many players, Murphy was able to take solace in that he still has Gary Simon, an electrifying two-sport star who signed to play football for the University of Oklahoma on Wednesday.
Blessed with ball-handling skills, court vision and a shooting touch, Simon is averaging a team-leading 16.6 points and is the only player on the team in double figures.
Simon is one of just three seniors, but the Gladiators have thrived thanks to the contribution of some key underclassmen, including freshman Barry Brown (7.4 points per game) and sophomore Shaquille Speights (8.9 ppg). In fact, Gibbs has eight players averaging nearly three points or more per game.
“You need depth to play against the stronger teams,” Murphy said. “And we’re starting to develop that.”
The Gladiators’ three losses have come against Lake Wales, Lakeland George Jenkins and Ocoee. In the county Gibbs has been dominant, sweeping its season series against Boca Ciega and Lakewood, its two biggest south county rivals in the district.
The Pirates and Spartans still pose a threat. Boca Ciega is led by sharpshooter Dallas Moore, who came up big in an upset of Lakewood last week. And Lakewood, under first-year coach Anthony Lawrence, has a balanced team that took the Gladiators to overtime in their first meeting.
One of those three teams will miss the playoffs. And the two teams that make it eventually will have to get past state-ranked Lake Wales in the region final.
Murphy is confident his team can make another run. Last week, Gibbs played Lake Wales in a rematch of last season’s state semifinal. The Gladiators lost 56-42 but held the lead at halftime and missed 11 free throws.
“It was a close game, closer than the score indicated,” Murphy said.
“We have young team that should contend for years to come. But we’re more concerned about this season and winning right now.”
Bob Putnam can be reached at email@example.com.
8A-8 at various sites
Tuesday: No. 4 Palm Harbor University at No. 1 Sarasota Riverview, 7; No. 3 East Lake at No. 2 North Port, 6
Feb. 10: Final, 7 (Sarasota County hosts unless two Pinellas teams are in the final)
7A-10 at various sites
Tuesday: No. 5 Northeast at No. 4 Pinellas Park, 7; No. 6 Countryside at No. 3 Clearwater, 7
Wednesday at Seminole: No. 1 St. Petersburg vs. Pinellas Park/Northeast winner, 6:30; No. Seminole vs. Clearwater/Countryside winner, 8
Feb. 10 at Seminole: Final, 7
6A-12 at various sites
Monday: No. 5 Dixie Hollins at No. 4 Lakewood Ranch, 7
Wednesday: Lakewood Ranch/Dixie winner at No. 1 Osceola, 7; No. 3 Largo at No. 2 Palmetto, 7
Feb. 10: Final, 7 (higher seed hosts)
2A-9 at Keswick Christian
Tuesday: No. 2 Keswick Christian vs. No. 3 Canterbury, 5; No. 1 Sarasota Christian vs. No. 4 Lakeside Christian, 7
Feb. 10: Final, 7
6A-10 at Mitchell
Tuesday: No. 4 Tarpon Springs vs. No. 5 River Ridge, 7
Wednesday: No. 2 Mitchell vs. No. 3 Sunlake, 6; No. 1 Land O’Lakes vs. Tarpon Springs/River Ridge winner, 7:30
Feb. 10: Final, 7
5A-12 at various sites
Tuesday: No. 5 Bradenton Bayshore at No. 4 Boca Ciega, 7; No. 6 Dunedin at No. 3 Bradenton Southeast, 7
Wednesday: Bogie/Bayshore winner at No. 1 Gibbs, 7; Southeast/Dunedin winner at No. 2 Lakewood, 7
Feb. 10: Final, 7 (in Manatee County unless two Pinellas teams make final)
3A-9 at Shorecrest
Tuesday: No. 5 Northside Christian vs. No. 4 Indian Rocks Christian, 4:30; No. 3 Shorecrest vs. No. 6 Clearwater Central Catholic, 6; No. 7 Calvary Christian vs. No. 2 Admiral Farragut, 7:30
Feb. 10: Shorecrest/CCC winner vs. Calvary/Farragut winner, 6; No. 1 St. Petersburg Catholic vs. Northside/IRC winner, 7:30
Feb. 11: Final, 7