Gibbs leading Hall back into national spotlight
Kenneth Cook/Staff Photographer
Seton Hall was just seven seconds away from seeing its first ranking since the 2011-12 season get erased. The Pirates were down 67-65 to Creighton and on the verge of a second straight loss a week after nationally-shocking wins over then No. 15 St. John’s and No. 8 Villanova.
The Pirates entered the timeout huddle and head coach Kevin Willard went to draw up a play. His star-junior guard drew it for him.
“I told Coach Willard that I had a three in me,” Sterling Gibbs said.
He wasn’t kidding. Gibbs in-bounded the basketball to senior forward Brandon Mobley, got the return hand-off, turned to his right, and hit a go-ahead three-pointer with just two seconds left in regulation.
As Gibbs told the story of his game-winning play, he did not show much of a smile. He just talked and sat comfortably in his chair. Playing the role of hero is nothing new for the junior, and it’s something that he has come to cherish. While a consensus top 15 recruiting class has played a major factor in raising the program to new heights, star guard and second leading scorer Isaiah Whitehead has been out since the non-conference finale against Maine, leaving the Pirates shorthanded and looking for even more production from their leading scorer.
“I know that our young guys are looking for me to make plays late in games,” Gibbs said. “I know that if I don’t step up and show that I can make the plays; that hurts our team.”
Gibbs' hits the game-winner over Creighton (AP Photo).
Freshman Khadeen Carrington has shown the biggest improvement in play, primarily replacing what he can of Whitehead’s production. Carrington has averaged 8.1 points and 2.6 assists this season, and while he has certainly had his fair share of great moments in the Pirates’ surprising start to the season, he didn’t hesitate when he talked about the key to the team.
“Sterling (Gibbs) isn’t human right now,” Carrington said. “I wouldn’t want to face him. The kid has given us life every time we may think we’re fading.”
But, the return to national relevance for Seton Hall didn’t start this season. It started when the Pirates went 17-16 in a rocky 2013-14 season. From Hakeem Harris being dismissed from the team to Tom Maayan leaving due to military duties in Israel, that was just the start of a season that saw the Pirates hampered by injuries and suspensions.
Gibbs’ turning point came in February of last season.
“There were some lows, but then there was the low of the low,” he said. “We didn’t always have the best attitude at times and that kept us from performing to our full potential.”
Ironically, the low point for Gibbs came after an 82-67 win over Georgetown on Feb. 20, 2014. He did not travel to Omaha for the team’s game against Creighton on Feb. 23, staying back due to a suspension.
Gibbs didn’t frown upon that memory. He didn’t get upset. When he wrapped up talking about the low point of his sophomore season in the blue and white, he smiled.
“There was a serious low for me, but I think it was necessary for us to be great,” Gibbs said. “It made me become a leader.”
Just weeks later, Gibbs had the ball in his hands in the first of his heroic actions in his time as a Pirate, lifting Seton Hall to its first win over a top-3 opponent in program history with a game-winning jumper at the buzzer to beat No. 3 Villanova, 64-63, in the Big East Quarterfinals on March 13 at Madison Square Garden.
Gibbs made the program the story around the country as the Pirates advanced to their first conference tournament semifinal in over a decade. But that was only step one for Gibbs’ pathway to become the program’s leader.
“He’s just getting what he’s worked for now,” associate head coach and former Pirate great Shaheen Holloway said when talking about Gibbs. “That’s not always the case with talented players. Sterling has the talent, but he could be like other players. What separates him is the talent and the ability to display that talent in crunch time. He has embraced that leadership role.”
Sterling Gibbs is making a name for himself and the Hall (AP Photo).
Gibbs’ main game-changer has been his jump shot. Last season, he hit just 31 three’s out of 90 attempts. In 16 contests this season, the junior is 39-of-82 from beyond the arc, leading the Big East at 48 percent.
Gibbs worked all summer on his form with his coaches and, mostly, his family. The younger brother of former University of Pittsburgh product, Ashton Gibbs, got together with his brother to shoot hundreds of shots per day. Ashton, a 41-percent shooting threat from three-point territory while at Pitt and an Honorable Mention All-American before graduating in 2012, is Sterling’s sounding board.
“I go to Ashton when I just need to talk,” Gibbs said. “He and my dad are there to give me advice, and when I need to hear something blunt, I look to them. They haven’t been afraid to tell me like it is, but I’ve come to accept that, that’s the only way that I can improve.”
Gibbs has done just that, with four Big East Honor Roll awards, two Big East Player of the Week awards, and a CBS Sports National Player of the Week Recognition. Averaging 16.4 points per game, he is fourth in the conference and leads the Pirates in scoring.
When Willard was asked about Gibbs’ transitioning of the program to the national spotlight, he did not have much to say.
Just four words, to be exact.
“Sterling is our rock.”
John Fanta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @John_Fanta.