Anyone who has watched Umoja Gibson’s slippery ball handling or smooth shooting stroke can understand why he’s regarded as one of the top players in Central Texas.
But Gibson may be just as impressive without the ball in his hands.
The University senior point guard delivered 20 points and nine assists, but it was his and the No. 2-ranked Trojans’ dexterous defensive effort that fueled a convincing 55-28 win over College Station on Friday night at the UHS gym.
Gibson ranks as one of the top scorers in the area, and yet it was the defense that set the tone against the Cougars (21-7, 4-2), who came into the night second in the District 18-5A standings behind University.
“The kid is great. That’s what guys don’t understand,” University coach Rodney Smith said. “This kid is great, he’s not just a scorer. He’s all-around. He loves to give it up, but more importantly he loves to stop the guy in front of him. He wants your best guy.
“And we’ve got about seven or eight of them just like him that pride themselves in playing defense. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it, but they really do.”
It was plainly evident on this night. University (20-8, 6-0) locked down the College Station ballhandlers on the perimeter and kept their hands busy, picking and poking at the ball for fast break-starting steals. In those moments when the Cougars were able to penetrate to the basket, the Trojans’ 6-foot-7 big man Jibrael Washington provided better rim protection than a box of plastic wrap. Washington swatted away four shots on the night, while forward Justin Williams added two weak-side blocks of his own.
University limited College Station to just three points in the opening quarter and 10 for the first half, as the Cougars didn’t knock down their first basket until Cade Kortan dropped in a runner with 24 seconds to go in the opening quarter.
“Man, I tell you, we really, really played some good defense tonight,” Smith said. “We talked on defense, we kept them out of the lane. They did what we asked them to do. When you can get a bunch of kids to do what you ask them, it’s fun. It’s fun.”
College Station employs a more deliberate offensive style than the Trojans, whose games can resemble a layup (or dunk) drill when they’re playing well. But Cougars coach J.D. Sullivan credited University with making his team uncomfortable.
“I didn’t feel like any of it was self-inflicted,” Sullivan said. “They do a really good job, they’re really athletic. We ran some stuff where I thought we got what we wanted, and 6-7 (Washington) from behind blocks our shot. There’s no game plan for genetics. ... They’re not No. 2 in the state for no reason.”
Hitting from inside and out, University scored 16 of the game’s first 17 points, including a two-handed flush from Washington in transition. Gibson, meanwhile, showed off his range by sinking four 3-pointers in the first half, and six for the game.
University built a 27-10 lead by halftime, and only stuffed that cozy cushion in the third quarter. Gibson found Justin Williams on the break, Antoine Hailey drilled a jumper from the wing, then Gibson dropped in a pretty 15-footer after faking a defender off his feet. Through the three quarters, the Trojans had the game well in hand at 40-15.
In the final period, College Station forward Zane Stavinoha fueled a mini-run from the Cougars, who outscored the Trojans 13-6 in the first five minutes of the period. Stavinoha scored on the blocks, then later popped in a trey from the top of the key.
“We made some adjustments, but we also had a couple of kids who got a little more aggressive,” Sullivan said. “Kind of relaxed. We kind of weren’t worried about the scoreboard. Every possession wasn’t as important as it was in the first quarter, so I think that kind of allowed us to relax a little bit. But, you know, what do you do?”
Smith thought his team may have been guilty of scoreboard-watching and taking their foot off the gas near the end of the game. He called, “You’re relaxing, don’t relax!” from the sideline to try to get them to maintain their intensity, but said they’re still learning.
“We tend to relax when the game is kind of out of hand,” Smith said. “Good teams don’t do that, or rather the championship teams don’t do that. They finish the job. Until it’s zeroes (on the clock). That’s a learning curve for us. We’ve got a long way to go. We’re fixing to get ready to start the second round (of district play), and we’re going to see where this thing leads.”
One player who stayed active until the end for University was senior guard Corey Montgomery. He provided an offensive spark, hitting four treys in the fourth quarter after not scoring in the first three periods. He finished with 13 points.
Hailey chipped in 14 points for University, while Williams had seven points and a team-best eight boards.
Stavinoha paced College Station with 11 points; nine in the second half.