Southern California 77, Arkansas 60
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP)—Freshman Taj Gibson did his damage this season on the West Coast, far from the spotlight and well after most of America’s basketball fans had gone to sleep.
Now, America gets to see how the Southern California star stacks up against another multitalented first-year player—by the name of Kevin Durant.
On the big stage of the NCAA tournament, Gibson finished with 18 points and eight rebounds Friday night to lift the fifth-seeded Trojans to a 77-60 victory over Arkansas.
Next up for USC (24-11) in the East Regional: A second-round Sunday game against Texas and Durant, the freshman many consider the best player in college basketball.
Think Gibson hasn’t thought about this one? He and his teammate, Nick Young (20 points), were laughing before the first question about the matchup had even been completed.
“We’re just trying to play as a team,” Gibson said. “Whatever Coach says goes. If that chance comes, it doesn’t really matter, as long as we get a `W.”’
Ducking, pivoting, swatting three shots and altering a handful more, Gibson was the best player on the court for most of this first-round game against 12th-seeded Arkansas. His highlight-reel moment was a rim-rattling dunk early in the second half that drew a technical foul, but might have been worth it just for the show.
The Razorbacks (21-14) got 15 points from their own star freshman, guard Patrick Beverley, but saw their second straight season end unhappily in the first round of the tournament.
This was their chance to build more job security for embattled coach Stan Heath and prove they really did belong in the tournament after being picked as one of the final bubble teams in a decision that enraged fans at Syracuse, Drexel and elsewhere.
They failed on both measures, getting off to a quick start and outhustling USC for the first couple minutes, but falling behind by double digits after 15 minutes and never making a serious run after that.
It left Heath to answer some predictable questions.
“I know there are sources and speculations and people who have all the answers,” he said. “But the guy who is in charge, my boss, he hasn’t changed since I’ve first been here.”
Arkansas simply had no answers for Gibson, who came to the Left Coast from Brooklyn, joining second-year coach Tim Floyd in an attempt to build a winner and give all those USC fans something to cheer for after football season.
“He’s made terrific progress,” Floyd said. “And he’s changed us, rebound-wise. At the end of last year, we got outrebounded by about 20 in a game against Cal. I don’t think we’ve had many games like that this year.”
Gibson is the same height, 6-foot-9, as Durant and even thinner. He wasn’t as dominant this season as Durant or another freshman, Greg Oden of Ohio State. That, plus the fact he plays in California at a school not known for basketball — at least not yet—made him easy to overlook.
“Gibson in person gets a lot more done than I saw on film,” Heath said. “Offensively, he was able to do things I didn’t think he was able to do.”
Indeed, he was front and center while USC was taking the lead for good in this one—with a 16-footer, a dunk, a layup and a couple free throws during an early 10-0 run. He finished 7-for-10 from the floor.
Floyd interrupted a question addressed to Gibson about his possible matchup with Durant come Sunday, insisting the Trojans might put somebody else on the Texas big man.
“I don’t really have a plan for him right now,” Floyd said. “If you start thinking Texas while you’re playing Arkansas, you’d be on charter home right now. We understand he may be the best individual in college basketball in many years.”
Gibson is no slouch, either.
His presence, plus a couple of high-profile recruits coming next year, could make things tough on Young, the junior swingman who led USC in scoring this season and was thought to be seriously considering leaving when it’s over.
Young scored 11 points in the second half and had an answer to almost every attempt by Arkansas to climb back in the game. His dunk and free throw for a three-point play put USC up 57-43 with 8 1/2 minutes left and the rest of the game was just a matter of playing out the string.
Gabe Pruitt, another junior who might test the NBA waters, had 11 points and four assists.
Sonny Weems had 13 points for Arkansas and teammate Charles Thomas, who came off the bench after spraining his ankle in the Southeastern Conference tournament, had 10.
Arkansas was widely considered one of the last at-large bubble teams to make the tournament, along with Stanford. Those two lost by a combined margin of 37 points.
“Sometimes you have those games where it just doesn’t work out,” Heath said.