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Gibbs, Northridge Suit Each Other but Losing Does Not Wear Well

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lucious Harris snared the inbounds pass and fed Kevin Cutler, his 6-foot-8, 230-pound teammate. It was all Keith Gibbs could do to get in the way--and Cutler slammed it over the 6-5, 180-pound Gibbs like he was intramural material.

Adding insult to embarrassment, Gibbs was whistled for the foul. His face appeared to explode in a mix of helplessness, frustration and anger. Again, he and his Cal State Northridge teammates couldn’t stop a steamroller. Cutler’s jam marked the 12th of 15 consecutive Cal State Long Beach points.

Gibbs has never known a season like this: His team has two wins, six losses.

“This is the most frustrated I’ve ever been,” he said after the Long Beach game.

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“I’ve never had a losing record. My youth soccer teams were state champs, my high school and junior college basketball teams had winning traditions. It makes it really hard for me. Every game on the road the embarrassment gets to you. I’m not used to losing. I hate it.”

Although a shooting slump has limited him to an 11-point average, Gibbs is doing all he can to stop the slide. He pulls down 4.3 rebounds per game and leads the Matadors in assist (5.0) and steal (2.5) averages.

In the season-opening loss to Colorado, Gibbs broke the CSUN single-game record for assists with 15. In CSUN’s first win, he tied Derrick Gathers’ school record for steals with seven.

As co-captain, he also is doing his best to keep team spirits from sagging.

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“Even though we’re losing, and whoever reads this thing is not going to believe it, I still think we can compete with these people,” Gibbs said last weekend after Montana State pounded CSUN, 104-78.

At the hotel after the game, Gibbs organized a team meeting designed to ensure a shared misery.

He has always been loyal to his teammates, whether it has meant taking a punch in defense of a junior college teammate or agreeing to play an unfamiliar position.

This season Gibbs was asked to become a point guard when Eugene Humphrey, the incumbent at that position, quit the team three weeks before the opener.

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At the same time, Gibbs was settling in quite nicely as a shooting guard in the Matadors’ run- and-gun system. In the team’s first intra-squad scrimmage, 21 of his game-high 35 points were scored on three-point baskets.

But with Humphrey gone and freshman Andre Chevalier a not-ready-for-prime-time-player, Gibbs took the reins at point where his height advantage enhanced his already fine passing skills.

“Passing is my favorite part of the game . . . as long as they score,” Gibbs said. “In the past, coaches have told me that I pass too much.”

Being a tall point guard has its advantages, but not when it comes to chasing down particularly quick guards such as New Mexico State’s Randy Brown and Colorado’s Stevie Wise.

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“Andre (Chevalier) could stay with them, but not me,” Gibbs said.

The added responsibilities of running the offense also hindered his scoring production.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a shooting slump like that,” said Gibbs, who shot less than 30% for the first four games.

“My rhythm was really off on my three-pointers. My whole delivery was off. My mind was going in other places and I was trying to do too much.”

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Bob Burton, Gibbs’ coach the past two seasons at West Valley College in Saratoga, Calif., said he was surprised to find Gibbs riding shotgun in the Matadors’ new run-and-run system.

“I think he can run the point but not in a Loyola Marymount situation,” Burton said. “He doesn’t have the blazing speed of a point, though he has good speed for a three-man.”

Fortunately for Gibbs, the experiment didn’t last too long. Chevalier quickly developed into a starting point guard, allowing Gibbs to move to the wing.

“His game is much better off there,” CSUN Coach Pete Cassidy said. “He can take the ball to the hole well, and once he gets his rhythm outside then he’ll be a real threat.”

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In his first game on the wing, Gibbs scored a season-high 19 points against Montana State and, as evidenced by his six assists against Long Beach, Gibbs still can utilize his passing skills away from the point.

But the most impressive display of his athletic ability in the Long Beach game was the reverse dunk he made after a pass from Chevalier, who forsook a breakaway layup to watch Gibbs show off.

“I’ve known him since he was a kid coming to summer camp and he’s always had great springs,” Burton said of Gibbs, who has a 39-inch vertical leap.

“Last year he was one of the best jumpers in junior college ball. He had a flair to his game. At times, I was amazed by the things he did in the air. We set up some plays for him and he put down some devastating dunks.”

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After dunking 45 times last season, Gibbs took his show on the road to dunking contests in San Jose, where he beat out San Francisco 49er receiver Jerry Rice, and Venice Beach, where he turned heads with a windmill and a 360, a la Michael Jordan, but missed on an approach over the top of a friend’s head.

Gibbs has five of the Matadors’ eight dunks this season, including a one-handed rebound and dunk that caused a Montana State fan to mutter, “Shaquille O’Neal.”

Actually, Gibbs did not see a similar dunk on television the same day by O’Neal, LSU’s sophomore center, but that was only because his pregame meal interfered. Gibbs is an avid basketball fan with more than 200 videotapes of highlights, some of which are set to music.

His coach, however, is not as enamored of fancy dunks.

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“I don’t like flamboyance and stylin’ for the sake of flamboyance and stylin’,” Cassidy said. “I’d like to get the two points. I understand the need for Keith to express himself, to a point.”

Although Gibbs averaged 14 points, eight rebounds and seven assists a game his senior year at Westmont High in San Jose, he didn’t attract much interest from four-year schools.

“I wasn’t ready,” Gibbs said. “I knew before my senior year that I was going (to a junior college).”

Unfortunately for Gibbs, he wasn’t ready to play as a freshman at West Valley, either.

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“I was still real immature,” Gibbs said. “I was real inconsistent. I wasn’t good enough to be inconsistent and still play.”

Burton at first planned to redshirt Gibbs, but when another player became injured, Gibbs was forced into action.

“Last year, we couldn’t take him off the court so I could just picture how good he could be if he was a sophomore now,” Burton said.

Gibbs averaged 17.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and seven assists a game as a sophomore and drew recruiting interest from Washington and Oregon State--until they saw his grades.

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“School is hard for me,” he said. “I’m smart enough, but I’m not motivated enough. It scares me sometimes. My study skills have never been that good.

“I wouldn’t have graduated from high school if I didn’t have basketball. I love it so much I didn’t want to miss out.”

The threat of missing out keeps Gibbs going to class and doing his homework. He needs few reminders--especially with the absences of teammates Percy Fisher and Erik Cooper, both of whom are academically ineligible this semester.

“It is hard for them every time we leave for a trip,” Gibbs said.

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Northridge was the most persistent among schools that maintained interest in Gibbs despite his 2.1 grade-point average.

“Northridge felt honest,” Gibbs said. “It felt like the right place for me.”

Despite a 2-6 record, Gibbs feels he made a good choice.

“I have no regrets,” he said. “If you regret things, you can’t go on. The type of team we have, they are fun to be around even when you are losing.”

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