During its 29-win season, the University boys’ basketball team displayed crisp ball movement.
On Thursday morning, back in their old gym, they found that pass-the-pen is a pretty fun game, too.
Three of University’s starters signed to play college ball during a ceremony at the school – guard Umoja Gibson signed with North Texas, forward Antoine Hailey pledged to Angelina College and post Jibrael Washington inked with Temple College.
All three players described the event as an exciting, dream-fulfilling moment. And they were happy to share it together as teammates.
“We worked hard for it every day in practice,” Hailey said. “We all got to where we wanted to be.”
Added Washington: “We’ve all been wanting this for a long time. To see Mo (Gibson) go D-I and see Antoine get a chance to play, that’s great to see.”
At various points during the long recruiting process, Gibson admitted to being more than a little stressed. Offers came and sometimes went, and he agonized over what would be the fit. The 6-0 guard and Super Centex Player of the Year, Gibson averaged 22.4 points and 11.1 assists for the Trojans as a senior.
He can obviously play. But he wanted to find the right fit – as well as a program where he’d have a chance to see the floor as a freshman.
When Grant McCasland took the North Texas job after one season at Arkansas State, Gibson suddenly found the Mean Green far more attractive. McCasland, a former assistant under Scott Drew at Baylor, had recruited Gibson at Arkansas State, and soon after he took the job in Denton he placed a call to Gibson.
“When I found out he got the job at North Texas, he had called me. It was just a big blessing,” Gibson said. “I just moved to North Texas with him, because it was a great fit. The coaches there, I had the vibe with them and everything.”
Temple College coach Kirby Johnson attended Thursday’s signing day event, and commented on the lengths to which University went to make it special for the athletes. “Not all the kids we sign get this,” Johnson said.
Washington averaged 8.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.7 blocked shots for University as a senior. It was his ability as a rim protector that jumped out to Johnson and his assistant, JD Robson.
“That’s the thing that stood out to us,” Johnson said. “We actually saw him play in Temple against Temple High School, and he had a double-double at the half with rebounds and blocks. He ended up with 12 (blocks), and that’s just because he didn’t play the fourth quarter. That’s one of those skills that people don’t always have.
“Just because you’re tall doesn’t mean you’re going to block shots. But every time that we saw him play, which was probably four games, he was right on the verge of getting double figures. We need somebody to do that.”
Hailey, a 6-foot-3 high flier, had offers from Angelina and McLennan Community College. For him, Angelina offered the chance to experience a different part of the state.
“It was between them and MCC, and I wanted to get away from home,” Hailey said. “So I decided to go to Angelina. Lufkin is a nice little town.”
In addition to the basketball players, University softball standout Ashley Estrada joined the Mary Hardin-Baylor program, while football’s Julian Locke signed with Gallaudet University, an NCAA Division III school in Washington D.C. Gallaudet is a federally-charted private school designed for deaf and hearing impaired students. Locke is deaf, and the wide receiver would generally receive hand signals from the sideline before plays.
All the athletes flashed bright smiles as they completed their signing-day duties, thankful that their college decisions were done.
“It’s a relief,” Gibson said. “Now I can just focus on getting better as a player, as a student and just focusing on myself, not worry about this recruiting process. I’m glad it’s over with.”