ST. PETERSBURG — Gibbs has emerged recently as a team of exquisite completeness. One that is tall, deep and balanced. One that attacks inside on offense and throws up a dense thicket of arms on defense. One that has learned to take a lead and hold it.
All of this was on display Tuesday night in a 62-39 victory over Northeast in the Class 5A region semifinals. This is the fourth time the Gladiators have beaten the Vikings this season.
Gibbs (22-7) moves on to host Chamberlain in Saturday's region final.
The biggest task for the Gladiators entering Tuesday's game was to stop Northeast forward Andres Sanchez, who came up big in upset wins over Boca Ciega and Clearwater during the Vikings' exhilarating playoff run.
From the opening tip, Gibbs began to push and shove Sanchez as if trying to get a soda out of a uncooperative vending machine.
The Gladiators dropped guards inside to help, surrounding Sanchez in a mass of long limbs. The plan worked as Sanchez was held without a field goal in the first half.
"We knew we had to contest every shot with Sanchez," said Gibbs coach Larry Murphy, whose team also held Sanchez scoreless in the first half of the district final two weeks ago.
"If you don't box him out, he'll get to every rebound. We had to put a body on him, make it tough for him."
In the first quarter, Northeast slowed the pace and took a 7-6 lead as Adam Barker was fouled from beyond 3-point range and hit all three free throws.
Then the Gladiators found another gear.
Quincy Ford took care of the bulk of the scoring as he maneuvered past Viking defenders to score on a series of short jumpers and layups. Ford scored 16 of his team-high 24 points in the first half and helped Gibbs outscore Northeast 25-6 in the second quarter.
"We just felt we had to turn it up in the second quarter," Ford said. "We wanted to get up and make sure Northeast did not get on that run that has made them successful in the playoffs. I just wanted to do my best and score to help the team."
The Vikings have rallied from big deficits before, erasing double-digit leads in the fourth quarter in wins over the Pirates and the Tornadoes. It appeared Northeast was set to do it again in the third quarter.
Down 31-13 at the half, the Vikings cut it to 33-23 midway through the third quarter. But they never got closer. Gibbs kept finding ways to score inside and was back up by 15 a few minutes later.
"We were spunky and played hard," Northeast coach Dave Redding said. "We got on a run in the third quarter, but I think after we cut it to 10 we might have run out of gas."
Besides Ford, the Gladiators had two other players, Marquel Walton (10 points) and Devante Miley (10), who reached double figures.
Sanchez, who scored three in the first half (all free throws), led his team in scoring with 15.