Gilbert has played his role well

Oklahoma forward Johnnie Gilbert scored a career-high 13 points in his final home game against Baylor on Saturday. See inside as Sooners Illustrated Editor Jay C. Upchurch takes a look at the career of the senior from Minnesota. (AP Photo/Jerry Laizure)

Other than his size 18 shoes, there was nothing about Johnnie Gilbert that seemed impressive the first time I watched him go through drills at an OU basketball practice. His stride seemed gawky as he lumbered from one position on the floor to the next. His southpaw shot appeared forced and his ball-handling skills were negligible.

At best, I figured this awkward 6-foot-8 kid from Minnesota would be relegated to the role of bench jockey, occasionally exchanging his cheerleading duties for a little mop-up duty.

Oh sure, Kelvin talked the kid up. He mentioned the fact Gilbert was the Minneapolis City Player of the Year his senior season and pointed to the all the numbers that backed up such a lofty honor - 17 points and 14 rebounds a game while leading his team to the 29-1 mark and the Class 3A title.

And the kid did hustle. There was no doubting the passion he brought to the floor, even as a raw freshman. But with a huge void in the lineup created by the departure of Eduardo Najera, how was Sampson going to successfully fill it with guys like Johnnie Gilbert, Jameel Heywood and Daryan Selvy?

Sure, juco All-American Aaron McGhee figured to shoulder a big part of the load, along with returning starters Hollis Price, Nolan Johnson and Kelley Newton, but who else was going to step up to the challenge?

Gilbert, that's who.

"The first time I saw Johnnie, he got every rebound and he must have blocked 10 shots. He might have scored only eight points, but those are my type of players," Sampson said. "I knew Johnnie fit our system. And I knew he was going to be a major contributor at Oklahoma before he was through."

Amazingly, Gilbert was a solid contributor before the end of his first season as a Sooner. He averaged 4.3 boards, 2.3 points and almost a blocked shot a game during the 2000-01 season, helping provide a little depth to the front court.

And while it was clear Gilbert wasn't on a path to be the next Wayman Tisdale, the intangibles he brought to the floor every game made him a valuable asset to OU's program.

The Sooners went 26-7 that season and finished second in the Big 12 with a 12-4 mark.

"Johnnie gives us energy off the bench," Price said. "He's a scrapper. He's not afraid to mix it up out there and he knows what his role is and plays it right."

The biggest hurdle Gilbert has faced during his time at OU has been staying healthy. Injuries have taken their toll on the lanky kid known as "Jilla" to his teammates. In fact, he was limited to six games his sophomore season due to hip and shoulder injuries.

Gilbert's role was reduced to that of a spectator during the Sooners' Final Four run that season. But even as he sat squirming on the bench, he vowed to return and help OU go even farther in the NCAA Tournament in 2002-03.

It took a while, but Gilbert eventually gained the respect of fans with his all-out hustle and never-say-die enthusiasm. And although he would never develop into the offensive force he was during his prep career, Gilbert was a solid defender whose shot-blocking ability moved him all the way to the No. 5 spot on the career chart going into his senior season.

"You just have to accept the fact that what you are doing is the best for the team and make the most of your chances once you get into the game," said Gilbert.

That's what Gilbert has done during his five years at Oklahoma.

He played a key role in the team's run to the Elite Eight his redshirt sophomore and then did everything in his power to help the Sooners avoid missing their first NCAA bid during the Sampson era. Alas, injuries depleted the OU lineup last season to the point even a superhuman effort from Gilbert would not have helped.

And yet, the Sooners again hit the 20-win plateau.

"What I love about Johnnie is that he gives you instant energy when he gets in the game. His motor is always running at full speed. You need guys like Johnnie on a team," added Sampson.

That has been proven over and over again this season, as Gilbert continually comes off the bench to provide the Sooners with a key blocked shot or a critical rebound, or even the occasional timely bucket.

On Saturday, Gilbert and fellow senior Jaison Williams played their final game in the Lloyd Noble Center. Around 8,000 faithful followers turned out to say thank you one last time, and the senior duo did not disappoint.

Five days after collecting 12 points and four boards in a win over No. 8 Kansas, Gilbert tossed in a career-high 13 points to go along with seven rebounds. Williams added 15 points and 10 assists to the cause as the Sooners routed Baylor 103-60.

"I have to credit my teammates because they wanted to make today special for me and they did. We had some great plays from everyone. Everybody contributed to make tonight's win special," Gilbert said afterward.

And as usual, Gilbert was looking at the road the Sooners are facing in the coming days.

"Our guys have got a lot of energy going right now," he added. "The thing right now is we've got to keep this going for the rest of the season. And I think we're starting to grasp that."

Gilbert would like nothing more than to help the Sooners pick up a pair of key road victories at Texas and Texas Tech this week, and then go into Kansas City and the postseason riding a big wave of momentum. As wide open as the Big 12 appears to be right now, a peaking OU team could do some serious damage.

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