Sunday, January 21, 2018
Sports

Cotey: A helping hand to Gibbs' title hopes

His defense was superlative.

His offense was timely.

His relief filled the gymnasium.

Looking down at his right hand, which hadn't dribbled and shot and defended at full speed in more than a month — and had been out of a cast for only three days — Gibbs High School senior guard Shaq Speights smiled.

"It feels good," he said.

Speights' return last week in a region quarterfinal win over defending state champion Jesuit, a game in which he held the Tigers' leading scorer to nine points, has reinvigorated the Gladiators heading into tonight's 8 p.m. showdown with neighborhood rival Lakewood at Eckerd College. It is the first region playoff game between the programs.

And those preseason state championship hopes have returned.

"Having him back helps our chances," senior guard Barry Brown said. "Very much."

Just a month ago, a hand injury had seemingly ended Speights' season, and some would say Gibbs' chances at the school's first hoops title since 1969. His return, though, has changed those perceptions.

A little over a month ago, defending anyone wasn't a possibility for Speights. The night before a big game against Raines in Jacksonville, Speights said his right hand got slammed in a hotel room door.

He missed that game — a 41-40 loss — and when he had X-rays the following Monday back in St. Petersburg, the report wasn't good.

"The doctor said that I was probably out for the rest of the season," Speights said. "I was down. I was pretty upset that I couldn't just hurry up and get healthy."

So Speights waited, hoping that his bones would grow and heal more quickly than a normal person's.

Without him and guard Daniel Davis, also injured, and heading into its toughest stretch of the season against a schedule specifically designed by coach Larry Murphy to toughen his team —ranked No. 1 in Tampa Bay by the Tampa Bay Times in the preseason — for the playoffs, Gibbs stumbled.

It lost to North (Ga.) Gwinnett by 21, Berkeley Prep by 18 and St. Petersburg by 23.

After beating Lakewood twice during the regular season, the Gladiators were bested by the Spartans in the district final, 66-62 in overtime.

With Speights, the team's leading scorer last year and second-leading scorer this season, Gibbs is 14-2. Without him, they were 4-6.

"He brought pretty much everything; he was the second-leading scorer, one of better defenders, he had been in the program the longest, and we missed his leadership," Murphy said. "It was a bigger loss that I thought it would be initially. A bigger blow than I thought."

With his full complement of players, Murphy thinks his team could have beaten everyone during that 4-6 stretch.

Without them, he said those who remained played harder and better, with strong performances from players like Brown and junior varsity call-up Marquez Walls. Davis also returned and scored a season-high 29 in a 91-88 loss to Winter Haven.

All that was missing was Speights.

In his first start back, Speights keyed a tremendous defensive effort in the second half against Jesuit. He held Christian Whidden without a 3-pointer for just the third time all season, and even more impressive held him to a season-low two attempts.

For a guy who focused more on scoring in the past, it was personally as satisfying as a game-winning bucket.

"My coaches always got on me last year. I used to let people score on me," Speights said. "Playing good defense is just pride. It's the one thing I wanted to get better at."

Gibbs, clearly, has gotten better with Speights back in the lineup.

His offense (33 points in two wins over Lakewood) and defense will play a big role in tonight's game, and the Gladiators seem to have regained their footing just in time for one of the biggest games in south St. Petersburg in years.

Speights is thrilled he'll be able to play in it.

"It's big getting him back," Brown said. "We needed him."

John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.

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