No one would have been surprised if T.J. Gibbs had played a bit role in Saturday’s ACC road-opener at Pittsburgh.
• A freshman guard seventh on the team in playing time making his first trip into a true road venue in conference play.
• As the key backup to early-season sensation Matt Farrell – and sometimes Farrell’s backcourt running mate -- there is overwhelming pressure for any first-time player on the road.
• Most of his damage had come against teams like Seattle, Chicago State and North Carolina A&T.
The Oakland Zoo – named after the neighborhood in which the Petersen Events Center sits and because of the rowdy student backing – was rocking.
So, too, as it turned out, was the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Gibbs out of Scotch Plains, N.J.
Inserted into the lineup with Farrell when senior captain Steve Vasturia picked up his fourth foul with 13:12 remaining, Gibbs was an instrumental contributor in Notre Dame’s 11-0 run as the Irish wiped out a five-point deficit and went on to defeat the Panthers in overtime, 78-77.
“He is a fearless young man,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey after Gibbs scored seven points on 3-of-6 shooting in 12 minutes of action.
“This would have been the one that I’d be worried about, and (yet) he just plays. That’s a big-time game. He gave us some really key minutes. He unafraid. The seven points he scored in 12 minutes were key points.”
After missing a corner jumper, Gibbs drilled a three-pointer with 11:05 remaining to tie the game. His loose-ball recovery underneath the basket and subsequent lay-in gave Notre Dame its largest lead -- 60-52 – with under eight minutes left.
“That definitely was a big play for me and the team,” said Gibbs, Seton Hall Prep’s all-time leading scorer and first-team all-state in the Pirates’ 29-1 season last year.
“It was a confidence boost and capped off a great run for us. I’m just trying to get everyone to keep playing with that intensity, and the emotion just spilled over.”
Moments later, Vasturia was back in the game for Gibbs as Brey turned to his veteran leadership to secure Notre Dame’s 12th conference road victory in its last 19 road excursions.
Vasturia led the Irish to victory, scoring 10 of Notre Dame’s final 12 points. But Gibbs had bridged the gap on the road as Vasturia was saddled with foul trouble.
“I trust coach and I trust Steve,” said Gibbs of is removal from the lineup. “Steve is a captain and he hit the big shot.”
Gibbs, three years younger than Vasturia, knows the Irish captain’s game well. He watched Vasturia as a wide-eyed, youthful observer of the AAU circuit as older brothers Sterling (Texas, Seton Hall, UConn) and Ashton (Pittsburgh) crafted their games.
“I’ve been watching Steve since I was eight or nine, so I knew exactly what Steve could do,” Gibbs said. “I know my time will come.”
Averaging 14 minutes per game, Gibbs’ playing time has gradually increased against better competition. He played nine minutes against Colorado and 10 the next night against Northwestern in November, scoring just two points combined. Three weeks later, he scored five points in 10 minutes against Villanova and seven points in 14 minutes versus Purdue.
“Our team needs me to do that,” Gibbs said. “There have been games where my confidence and overall energy level weren’t great. My job is to pick up the energy of our team. Once I came out, it just kept going with the starters.”
Gibbs’ performances cannot be judged strictly by his point total. As a bigger, athletic guard, he and super-sub sophomore Rex Pflueger play a significant role for the Irish on the defensive end of the court.
“Just watching (Pflueger) go from practice to the game gives me more confidence,” Gibbs said. “I see the way he changes the game, so when I go in there, I can impact the game in a positive way, too.
“That’s what coach needs us to do, to be energy guys while giving the starting five a break. Just make sure there’s not a drop-off. Defense just takes effort.”
With a challenging three-game road trip coming up against Miami, Virginia Tech and Florida State – following home tilts against Louisville Wednesday night and Clemson Saturday – it certainly won’t be the last time this season Gibbs will be expected to stem the tide in a hostile environment.
“It’s definitely something new,” said Gibbs of playing conference road games in front of raucous crowds. “But the leaders on the team, the captains, make sure our transition is easier.
“They’re making sure we’re staying calm and that we’re composed. If we stay composed, we’ll be fine.”
Gibbs is 1-for-1 in that department.