Heading into the season, most experts agreed that Pittsburgh had all the pieces to make a deep run this season – except a go-to-guy.
Who would get the ball down the stretch of a tight game for the Panthers?
In the finals of the 2K Sports Classic against Texas on Nov. 19, that question was answered in a dramatic way.
Up 63-62 with 1:24 remaining, junior guard Ashton Gibbs knocked down a 3-pointer to give Pittsburgh a four-point lead and then iced the game with two free-throws with 23.1 seconds left.
Gibbs finished with 24 points – 19 coming in the second half.
“Honestly, I needed to take over,” Gibbs said by phone. “With the team concept, though, I didn’t want to be selfish. My teammates got me the ball, so I just took advantage of [what the defense gave me].
“I dreamed of it when I was younger, being a top-notch player in a big-time game. At Madison Square Garden, it’s something you dream of.”
Gibbs, a 6-foot-1 guard from Seton Hall Prep (N.J.), has taken his game to a new level this season. He has improved his numbers in every category, averaging 18.3 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists, while shooting 46.2 percent from 3-point range.
On top of the increase in production, Gibbs has also developed into a leader for coach Jaime Dixon – Gibbs is the only one averaging more than 27 minutes per game.
“That’s my job, not only being a veteran, but as a point guard,” he said. “With all the young players we have, it’s my job to lead the team, point them in the right direction. I just have to keep doing it.”
Gibbs said he worked hard in the offseason to improve his athleticism, strength and quickness, knowing that Dixon would need him to step up and become a go-to-guy if Pittsburgh was to reach its potential.
While not a true point guard, Gibbs has also looked to become a better distributor and lead guard.
“It’s something I started doing last year. The key to the team is getting my teammates involved,” he said. “I am trying to become more of a point guard, I’m trying to do what’s needed of me. I’m doing whatever job the team needs.”
In typical Pittsburgh fashion, though, Gibbs is not getting a ton of attention on a national level. With all the elite point guards in the country this season, he has flown somewhat under the radar.
Does Gibbs feel he is underrated?
“You can say that,” he said. “But it’s my job to go out and prove myself to people. I don’t really care as long as we’re winning.”
And winning is certainly something that Pittsburgh has been doing this season. The Panthers sit at 9-0, ranked No. 3 in the country, and are the favorite in the Big East.
Gibbs isn’t satisfied, though.
“It’s going pretty good, we’re playing pretty good,” he said. “We’re not playing our best, but we’re working hard in practice. It starts with our defense, which carries on to our offense, hitting open shots. But it’s defensive schemes as a whole, locking people up.”
The last couple of seasons, Pittsburgh has had successful regular-season campaigns but has underachieved in the NCAA Tournament. Last year, the Panthers were upset in the second round by Xavier; in 2008, they were knocked out in similar fashion by Michigan State in the second round.
This team is looking to take the next step, though – the Final Four. The closest Pitt has come recently was in 2009, when Scottie Reynolds and Villanova beat them in the closing seconds of the Elite Eight.
“We learned from it, everything helps us,” Gibbs said of the past few NCAA Tournaments. “I think we learned that we have to play defense all the time. And nobody takes us for granted, so we can’t take anyone else for granted.”
Pittsburgh has all the ingredients for a potential run to Houston in March: scorers in the backcourt in Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker; rebounders up front in Nasir Robinson, Gary McGhee, Talib Zanna and Dante Taylor; an athletic wing in Gilbert Brown; and a productive sixth man in Travon Woodall. Of course, the Panthers will continue to play their patented tough defense as well.
And now, with Gibbs emerging as the team’s go-to-guy in the final minutes of games, Pittsburgh might have found its missing piece.
“We have a great team, we’re looking forward to a good season,” he said.
“But the best is yet to come.”