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March 16, 2007
SPOKANE, Wash. - Taj Gibson did much of his best work this season after most of America had gone to sleep, gaga over those other multitalented freshmen who dominated college hoops.
There was no overlooking Southern California's newest star Friday night.
On the big stage of the NCAA tournament, Gibson finished with 18 points and eight rebounds to lift the fifth-seeded Trojans to a 77-60 victory over Arkansas.
Nick Young scored 20 points for the Trojans (24-11), who won in their first appearance in the tournament since 2002.
Ducking, pivoting, swatting three shots and altering a handful more, Gibson was the best player on the court for most of this one. His highlight-reel moment was a rim-rattling dunk early in the second half that drew a technical foul, but might have been worth it just for the show.
Up next is for Gibson and USC is a tantalizing second-round meeting in the East Regional - against Texas and its more-heralded star freshman, Kevin Durant.
Should be interesting watching these two work against each other on Sunday.
The 12th-seeded Razorbacks (21-14) got 15 points from their own star freshman, guard Patrick Beverley, but saw their second straight season end unhappily in the first round of the tournament.
This was their chance to build more job security for embattled coach Stan Heath and prove they really did belong in the tournament after being picked as one of the final bubble teams in a decision that enraged fans at Syracuse, Drexel and elsewhere.
They failed on both measures, getting off to a quick start and outhustling USC for the first couple minutes, but falling behind by double digits after 15 minutes and never making a serious run after that.
And they certainly didn't have any answers for Gibson, who came to the Left Coast from Brooklyn, joining second-year coach Tim Floyd in an attempt to build something and give all those USC football fans something to cheer for in the winter.
Gibson is the same height, 6-foot-9, as Durant and even skinnier. He wasn't as dominant this season as Durant or another freshman, Greg Oden of Ohio State. That, plus the fact that he plays in California at a school not known for basketball - at least not yet - made him easy to overlook.
But he was front and center while USC was taking the lead for good in this one - with a 16-footer, a dunk, a layup and a couple free throws during an early 10-0 run. He finished 7-for-10 from the floor.
His presence, plus a couple of high-profile recruits coming next year, could make things tough on Young, the junior swingman who led USC in scoring this season and was thought to be seriously considering leaving when it's over.
Young scored 11 points in the second half and had an answer to almost every attempt by Arkansas to climb back in the game. His dunk and free throw for a three-point play put USC up 57-43 with 8 1/2 minutes left and the rest of the game was just a matter of playing out the string.
Gabe Pruitt, another junior who might test the NBA waters, had 11 points and four assists.
Arkansas was widely considered one of the last at-large bubble teams to make the tournament, along with Stanford. Those two lost by a combined margin of 37 points.