As his Creighton teammates bounced all around him and interviewers gathered up the statistical stars of Friday's second-round, 67-63 slugfest over Cincinnati, Grant Gibbs walked off the court the way a middle-aged man walks from his bed in the morning, each step made as if stepping into a hot bath, body bent over just slightly.
There would be no television interview for him. No podium appearance, either. The box score wasn't particularly kind - noting only five points and four rebounds for the 6-5 senior, and one more turnover than assist. His reward, if you can call it that, was waiting back in the locker room, waiting inside a first aid kit and an ice machine.
"I got an old-man knee anyway," Gibbs said as he waited for the ice to come. He pointed to a pair of scars on his left knee, the result of two operations to relieve chronic tendinitis. "And then I kind of rolled my ankle. But it's not a bad sprain, just a normal. Kind of piling up there . . . "
Kind of? Gibbs was involved in several pileups under the basket, besides the fender benders in the middle of the court. Twice in the last 2 minutes of this game, he was flipped unprotected and landed on his back under the basket. With Creighton clinging to a three-point advantage within the last minute of play, he was tripped dribbling away from the Bearcats' vaunted press and skimmed across halfcourt, opening up a cut above his knee that left a badge of blood across his white shorts.
Creighton's offense, which revolves around junior Doug McDermott, is at its best when the number of possessions in a game is high, and the pace is, too. Listed as a forward, Gibbs either has the ball directing the offense or is shouting things out as he sets picks and screens. His injuries have robbed him of even the semblance of quickness, and left him with the elevation of an unearthed rock, and, by any measure of kinesiology, that should have rendered him ineffective against a team he deemed the quickest the Bluejays have faced all year.
And yet if you watched this clash of Big East old against Big East new, you watched Gibbs involved in nearly every play, directing the offense with or without the ball in his hands, moving bodies around like a coach in a walkthrough on the other end, as well. None of it was pretty, and three of his five turnovers came early, as he adjusted to the game's speed and physicality. But Gibbs was, well, a rock, in a game that was ultimately decided by poise plays.
"He's torn his labrum, had foot problems, knee problems - you name it," Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. "But from the shoulders up, he's one of the better basketball players I've been around. He absolutely gets it, understands it . . . He's our ultimate glue guy."
It's an odd thing to say about a player with five points, a player who took only three shots in the 37 minutes he played. But again, the eye test and the box score are not by definition harmonious, especially in college basketball, especially this time of the year. McDermott credited Gibbs with keeping the team from imploding during a particularly rough stretch in February. Friday, Creighton surprisingly outrebounded its longer, more athletic foe. Gibbs had four of those rebounds, yet kept at least twice more of those rebounds alive with hustle and positioning.
"He has a great feel for his teammates when they need maybe a kick in the rear or a pat on the back," said the coach. "When they need a touch in the post. I mean those are things that are really hard to teach. And they're inherent to Grant. We would not be where we are at today without him."
The Bluejays are, of course, past their first NCAA game, faced with a similar scenario to the one they faced last year. Last year, it was top-seeded North Carolina that stood in the way of a Sweet 16 appearance. Creighton lost, 87-73.
This year, it's second-seeded Duke.
"It's been our goal to get back to this game and see if we can't kick that door down," Greg McDermott said.
The metaphor alone should make Gibbs' knees ache.
"Ice, rest, anti-inflammatories," he said, laughing when somebody asked him about preparing for Duke. "I've adjusted to it. I've learned what I need to do. Generally, by the time the game starts I'm as good as I'm gonna be. I've played with it long enough at this point that it's not really gonna feel great. So I just forget about it and play."