Final season worth wait for Tia Gibbs

Tia Gibbs is averaging 8.0 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 17.7 minutes per game for Louisville. AP Photo/James Crisp

LOUISVILLE , Ky. -- Talk to University of Louisville guard Tia Gibbs for even a few minutes about basketball, or much of anything else, and it becomes abundantly clear that her proverbial glass of water is permanently half full.

Her words roll out easily, unhurried. Sentences start with a grin and end with a chuckle.

Watch her stand up and walk away to get ready for practice and you nonetheless get the feeling she needs the other half of the glass of water to put down a couple of aspirin.

What now unfolds isn't the career she envisioned when she packed her bags and headed off to college. She didn't expect to finish it playing in her hometown of Louisville -- in an arena that didn't even exist when she left for Vanderbilt. She didn't expect her final game to arrive in 2014, nearly six years after she played her first one.

It has been a circuitous journey, both geographically and medically, and all the additional miles have taken a visible toll on the sixth-year player.

"Watch her run," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said as Gibbs warmed up with teammates at the far end of the court before a recent practice. "It's a trot almost. She can't extend her legs; she doesn't have a full gait when she runs. It almost looks like it hurts. But she's just got a great attitude. She understands there are some who can't play."

Walz and Louisville thought that description fit Antonita Slaughter, who was seated next to Gibbs on the bench when the former slumped into unconsciousness during a game against Missouri State in early December. Still, even with Slaughter cleared to resume play after initially being ruled out for the season with a blood clot, Louisville needs someone like Gibbs to expand its rotation and its 3-point range.

Fortunately for the Cardinals, she's still here.

A star at Louisville's Butler High School, where she won both a state championship and Kentucky Miss Basketball honors as a senior in 2008, Gibbs originally picked Vanderbilt over her hometown school. She played a lot of minutes as a freshman, averaging the seventh most on the team that season, but it wasn't the right fit. She wasn't happy. When she made the decision to transfer, she liked what she saw and heard from Walz, whose first season at Louisville had been Gibbs' senior year in high school. She came home.

She played through a shoulder injury that didn't require surgery during her freshman season in Nashville, but she tore the labrum in her right shoulder during the summer after she transferred home. There is never a good time to slog through hours of lonely rehab, but she had to sit out the following season anyway because of the rules governing transfers in college basketball. She sought out the silver lining. Her shoulder would heal, and by the time she was eligible to play, she would be ready to begin anew.

That seemed the case the following season. She was one of three players to start all 35 games during the 2010-11 campaign and led the team with 95 steals. She took Shoni Schimmel, then a freshman, under her wing. And when the NCAA tournament selection committee paired Louisville against Vanderbilt in the first round of the postseason, Gibbs hit five 3-pointers and scored 19 points against her former team to light the fuse on a Cardinals run that carried them to the Sweet 16.

All is well that ends well.

Four minutes into the first game of the following season, her senior year academically, she dove for a ball and again tore the labrum in her right shoulder and chipped a bone.

"I knew what I was getting into with the process, so it was kind of tough mentally for me," Gibbs said. "I knew the pain, I knew the rehab, I knew how tough it was going to be."

Or at least she thought she did.

During that rehab process after her second shoulder surgery, Gibbs experienced pain in her hip that made simple things like lifting weights, running and jumping difficult. She was eventually diagnosed with another labral tear, this time in her hip, in addition to athletic pubalgia, a sports hernia. Two more surgeries were required. When it took longer than expected for her body to recover from those, she was ruled out of the 2012-13 season, effectively her second consecutive season on the sideline and third in five attempts as a collegian.

She said a lot of people expected her to walk away at that point, regardless of whether or not she was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. Walz wasn't necessarily among those who expected an exit, but he told her he would understand if she needed to make one -- and he would ensure it if doctors said she could do permanent damage in a return.

"His whole thing was he wants me to be able to play with my kids when I get older," Gibbs said. "Which is true, but in my mind, basketball has been my life since I was 5 years old. So I was going to push, push, push until it happened."

Sure enough, when Louisville opened the season against Loyola on Nov. 9, Gibbs played 19 minutes off the bench, more minutes than she had played in the previous 31 months.

Only in two games this season has she played as many as 30 minutes. One of those was when she scored 23 points and totaled nine rebounds in a win against Oklahoma, and she didn't play the following game. Walz said he trusts her to tell him when she can practice, although in almost the same breath, he admitted he sometimes needs to remind her that it's more important that she be available for the next game than that she go hard in a drill. By her account, the day-to-day pain is less than what she anticipated.

Whether she would admit otherwise is doubtful.

What she readily admits is that her body feels decidedly different the morning after a game now than it did when she was in high school.

"Everything hurts," Gibbs laughed. "It's a crazy thing. You hear older people talk about the weather. When it's cold outside, I wake up in the morning more stiff and achy than others. I look at freshmen and I'm like, 'Oh, you have it made.' They have no idea how much the cold tub will help you, and stretching, drinking water.

"Now you pay attention to the little things like your diet, getting eight hours of sleep at night, drinking water -- stuff that, in high school I could eat what I want, get two hours of sleep and still play at a high level."

The injuries have changed who she is as a player, too. She remains the team's best 3-point shooter after Schimmel, the area in which the team most misses Slaughter. Gibbs takes 58 percent of her shots from the 3-point line, the greatest percentage on the team (even after one shoulder surgery, that ratio was just 46 percent during the 2010-11 season). Given her limited minutes, she still comes up with a lot of steals. The step lost is somewhat offset by an extra half a beat of anticipation that comes with experience. But she isn't kidding herself.

"I'm a lot slower," Gibbs said. "I used to be really good on defense and very quick. Now I'm kind of stuck in mud. I've been working on my footwork and everything, but I just don't have that quickness that I used to have. That's been the toughest thing because I love to play defense, and I'm a reacher. So now I can't gamble like I used to and get the steals I was used to getting."

Still, there is nowhere she would rather be, as evidenced by nothing more complicated than the fact that she is still here.

She has yet to experience playing in a Final Four. She arrived the season after Louisville made its first trip under Walz and was unable to play during last season's memorable run to New Orleans. But all of the stops and starts along the way mean her career will conclude this spring, when Louisville will host an NCAA tournament regional in the KFC Yum! Center. For someone who grew up going to Louisville women's basketball games not in the shiny new downtown arena, nor at Freedom Hall, but in tiny Cardinal Arena in front of a few hundred fans, it would be memorable to close her college career in front of tens of thousands of fans in her hometown. It would be even more memorable if it ended the same way it began.

With a drive to Nashville, site of this season's Final Four.

No matter when and where it ends, you can bet she will find the positive in the experience. For as much as she wanted to be like the Louisville players she watched growing up, the person in whose footsteps she really wanted to follow was her older sister, whose master's degree in business administration was a blueprint.

"Through this, everything happens for a reason and God does work in mysterious ways, and I kind of look at this as a blessing in disguise," Gibbs said. "I'm able to get my undergrad and MBA paid for with no debt and still play basketball in front of thousands of people each night.

"When I finish, I'll finish both my MBA and basketball in April and it's off to the real world."

For now, it can wait. Lord knows she has.