MINNEAPOLIS — Taj Gibson was playing like the point guard he used to be, back in Brooklyn before he sprouted into the lanky 6-foot-9 monster he has become for USC.
He was yo-yoing up and down with the ball as the final seconds ticked off in a 72-55 victory over Boston College in the NCAA Midwest Regional first round Friday. As he dribbled, there were a few things on his mind.
"I redeemed myself from last year and that first-round loss to Kansas State," Gibson said. "We have a lot of good guys on this team and they deserve to win."
Gibson put the ball down gently at the final horn, leaving it all on the court, literally and figuratively.
There were many reasons the Trojans (22-12) pushed forward into Sunday's second round against Michigan State. Their defense on Boston College's Tyrese Rice, DeMar DeRozan's continuing development into the wunderkind he was billed to be, their relentless will to win that surfaced in the Pacific 10 Conference tournament.
All started, and finished, with Gibson on Friday.
The numbers reflected the Eagles' inability to deal with the load he has become. He finished with 24 points, six rebounds, five assists, and three blocked shots, making 10 of 10 shots from the field and four of five from the line.
But it was also what he did out of the public eye that mattered as much as the Trojans stumbled into halftime trailing, 34-30.
"Taj came in at halftime and yelled at everybody that we were not going to get a call and that we needed to be stronger," guard Daniel Hackett said.
"It was about a nine or 10 in volume," guard Dwight Lewis said.
Out of what?
"Ten," Lewis said.
The Trojans came out with a vengeful defense. Trailing 44-41 with 15 minutes left, they closed the game with a 31-11 blitz that left the ball in Gibson's hands with 10 seconds left while the Eagles (22-12) were crying uncle.
This was part of Gibson's mission when he decided to return to USC after his sophomore season. There were brief thoughts about jumping to the NBA, but he conferred with his parents and Coach Tim Floyd and decided he wasn't ready.
"I'll always be honest with a kid," Floyd said. "We told O.J. [Mayo] he should go. But Taj was projected as a mid-to-late second-round pick. It made sense for him to stay and grow."
Gibson had another motivation: the Kansas State loss.
"I couldn't go out like that," Gibson said. "I didn't want to leave USC as just another player. I wanted to leave my mark. I didn't want to be a player who left when the NBA came around. I wanted to be a player who was relentless."
That was seen with the Trojans trailing, 23-18, with eight minutes left in the half. Gibson scored on a layup to start a 9-0 run. His layup and foul shot gave USC a 25-23 lead. He then forced a turnover that resulted in a layup by DeRozan.
In the second half, he took an inbound pass and leaped for a two-handed dunk to tie the score, 37-37.
"Taj is from Brooklyn; he's one of those East Coast guys that doesn't quit," DeRozan said. "People think he's this gangly guy and soft until they get out on the court against him."
Even after the Trojans' sixth victory in row, the realization was slow to come to some.
"I didn't think he would be the difference in the game," Boston College Coach Al Skinner said. "As a matter of fact, even though he had a great line, that really wasn't the difference in the ballgame."
There were other factors. Marcus Simmons smothered Eagles' point guard Rice, who had seven of Boston College's first nine points, then didn't score again until the last two minutes.
DeRozan continued to force-feed his abilities on others. He made eight of 15 shots and finished with 18 points.
Lewis shook off a shooting slump for a 20-point game.
But those efforts orbited around one thing.
Said Hackett: "We go through Taj, and he was fired up for this game."