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March 16, 2009

Gibson lifts USC into NCAA Tournament

In a game with the magnitude of the Pac-10 Championship, a moment like the one Taj Gibson had late in the second half can develop over a lifetime.

With less than one minute on the clock and USC's NCAA Tournament chances at stake, Taj Gibson squatted down in front of Arizona State's James Harden.

The conference's best offensive player was going to try and break down the conference's best defender.

However 6-foot-9 players like Gibson shouldn't be able to guard strong, athletic, quick slashers like Harden.

As it turns out, Gibson has had lots of experience.

"I'm from New York, born and raised," Gibson said. "I got lots of experience guarding little guards."

On some of basketball's holiest concrete, courts like Manhattan's Rucker Park, Gibson had to defend NYC's speediest guards as the little guys tried to get to the rim.

"When I was playing for the New York Gauchos (an AAU team), I had to play against Russell Robinson from Kansas and Levance Fields, all those guys," Gibson said. "I'd guard those guys in practice every day.

"In New York, everything is a speed game. Everyone's going to the basket most of the time."

Gibson took on the challenge in USC practices all season, guarding smaller, quicker players like Donte Smith and Marcus Simmons.

"Taj is always asking to switch on screens," Simmons said. "He truly believes he can guard anybody."

So when Arizona State called a timeout trailing by one with just over 40 seconds on the clock, Gibson got the nod.

Expecting ASU to screen and roll with Harden and Jeff Pendergraph, USC head coach Tim Floyd changed up USC's defense.

For the first time all game, Floyd decided to have USC switch on ball screens.

With the game on the line and Daniel Hackett guarding Harden, ASU sent Pendergraph to the top of the key to set a pick. Gibson, as he was instructed, switched onto Harden.

As the best offensive player in the conference dribbled, Gibson locked down. He dropped into defensive position and got ready to make the play that helped seal the Trojans' improbably run through the NCAA Tournament.

"I didn't hesitate," Gibson said.

Gibson, like a poker player putting his opponent on a hand, knew what was coming next. He knew Harden would use a rocker step - a back-and-forth move. He knew he was going left. He knew he was going to the rim.

And with USC's season on the line, Gibson executed, staying on Harden's hip before raising up to block the shot. Making the play even more spectacular, he grabbed the loose ball.

Gibson got fouled, split on a pair of free throws, and Arizona State had one last chance down by two.

Just like before, the Sun Devils' last chance came down to Harden with the ball and Gibson in front of him.

"I looked into his eyes, and I just knew," Gibson said. "He was going to shoot a three."

Sure enough, Harden rose up, and Gibson contested the shot. It missed badly.

"This right here, it feels great," he said.



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