By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, March 11, 2007
The confrontation between Georgetown's Roy Hibbert and Pittsburgh's Aaron Gray should have been a classic encounter, a collision of 7-footers, two of the biggest men in college basketball. But by the end of the Big East final, Hibbert had so dominated Gray you wondered if he was going to make him wash his car and cook his dinner -- except Gray would have dropped the hose or burned the sauce.
Hibbert and Gray met under ideal conditions: in an amped-up Madison Square Garden, with NCAA implications on the line, and perhaps their individual NBA draft status at stake as well. They were towering adversaries whose teams had jockeyed back and forth all season, without much separating them. But the Hoyas' 65-42 victory was incontestable, and so was Hibbert's performance. The Hoyas completed a clean sweep of both the season and tournament titles, and Hibbert so thoroughly separated himself from Gray, with 18 points to Gray's three (on 1-for-13 shooting), that you wondered if he hasn't gotten the upper hand for good.
"They really beat us in every aspect of the game," Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon said.
All week, anticipation had ratcheted for another clash between the 7-foot Gray and the 7-2 Hibbert, the two titans of the league. In a pair of regular season meetings, they played to a virtual stalemate as their teams split. In the first game, at Pittsburgh on Jan. 13, each was steady and unspectacular: Hibbert with 10 points and three rebounds in 30 minutes and Gray with 11 points and four rebounds in 34 minutes.
On Feb. 24, they met on Georgetown's home court with first place in the conference on the line. But Gray, hobbled by a sprained ankle, hadn't practiced all week and didn't start. When he finally jogged onto the floor, Hibbert was energized.
"I really wanted him to play," Hibbert said. Gray expressly sought out Hibbert as he moved downcourt. "I missed you, Big Roy," he said.
Hibbert replied, "I missed you, too."
The Hoyas won that one, 61-53, but it still didn't settle much in the way of their personal duel. Gray played 21 minutes in his bad ankle and had 10 points and six rebounds, while Hibbert had 12 points and five rebounds in 28 minutes.
"I can't wait to play him again," Hibbert said afterward.
Part of the intrigue in the matchup lay in the fact that both men have struggled over their careers with ungainliness and yet high expectations based on their heights. Big players tend to mature later, and until they get control of their limbs, they hear all kinds of insults. John Thompson the elder referred to Hibbert as "Big Stiff" throughout his freshman year.
Gray was so awkward in high school in Emmaus, Pa., that he accidentally hurt himself by shattering a backboard. He was going up for an alley-oop during a practice one day when he knocked himself cold and broke the glass. All he remembers is waking up on the floor, in a pool of blood and a pile of shards. "Next thing I knew I was in the hospital," he told SI.com.
Gray is now a senior and supposedly the more finished player, as well as a projected first-round NBA pick. But Hibbert sent him back to high school. Gray has been dogged by inefficiency around the basket throughout his career, with a shooting average that hovers around 60 percent, and he was never more inefficient than Saturday night. Faced with Hibbert's size, and some smothering help on defense from the rest of the Hoyas that continually forced him to his left and cornered him wherever he turned, Gray got rattled. Everything came off his hands too fast and too hard.
"It was just one of those days where the stars were not aligned for him," Thompson said, graciously.
For the first few minutes, the two men shadowed each other, circling like boxers. Hibbert would leave the game for a breather, and so would Gray. One would check back in, and so would the other. And then Hibbert started hitting. He went around Gray, for a slam. He went past him, and over him. He finished on jump hooks, and step-throughs.
Gray, meantime, couldn't make anything. He went a nightmarish 0 for 9 in the first half, as simple layups caromed off the backboard, and baby hooks bounded off the back rim. By the time the period was over, so was the game. Hibbert had scored 14 points to just one for Gray, and the Hoyas had a 32-17 lead. It was enough. Gray's first basket would not come until 10 minutes 56 seconds were left, on a point-blank putback. It was his only one of the night.
"I think it was just a big game where the shots didn't fall, and he rushed a few of them," Dixon said.
Hibbert, meantime, scored his final points on -- what else? -- a dunk. That gave the Hoyas a 23-point lead with less than four minutes left and allowed the celebration to officially begin. On a night dedicated to big men with the tournament championship at stake, it was an emphatic closing argument.
Afterward, the two men met for handshake, and Hibbert put an arm around Gray, and told him, "You're a really good player." It was a generous gesture, from a player who had come up large.
"We're both competing out there, so you know, we're going extremely hard," Hibbert said. "We have respect for each other, and off the court, we're two human beings. So I just told him, 'Good work out there; you're a really good player.' We'll see him again, hopefully, if we keep working."