Wise Coach Walter Clark makes no bones about how he feels about the sixth-ranked Pumas’ two standout senior guards, Eliqua Brooks and Khadijah Gibson. It’s a philosophy that boils down to a simple phrase repeated constantly by the longtime basketball coach.
When the Pumas are in a bind, Clark will often turn to the team in a huddle during a timeout and proclaim that it is “Khadijah and Eliqua time.”
In the huddle, Gibson says his instruction is usually simple and direct: “ ‘I don’t want the ball in nobody’s hands but yours or Eliqua’s.’ That’s what he says. Especially in the fourth quarter.”
Gibson and Brooks are longtime friends. And Clark doesn’t deny he depends on them a great deal.
“In order for us to win, they have to take over,” Clark says. “We can’t win if they don’t.”
They’ve taken over plenty — the Pumas are 24-1 entering Thursday’s Maryland 4A semifinal against No. 7 North Point (23-1) at UMBC.
On the court, there’s an obvious bond between the two players. It’s a relationship that started when both were teammates at James Madison Middle School in Upper Marlboro as seventh graders, split when Gibson went to private schools for the first two years of high school but was reunited last season.
Clark, who coached in Prince George’s County for 26 years and won back-to-back state titles at DuVal from 1999 to 2000, said he has never had two players dominate the ball and carry a team the way Brooks and Gibson have this season.
En route to their third straight Maryland 4A South Region title and state tournament appearance, 5-foot-9 guard Brooks (20.2 ppg) and 5-8 guard Gibson (17.5 ppg) account for nearly 52 percent of their team’s offense.
“I didn’t know it was that much,” Brooks said with a smile.
In the region title game last week, Brooks scored 38 points and Gibson added 23 in the team’s 73-62 win over No. 18 C.H. Flowers.
“We just know each other,” Brooks said. “We feel each other. When we’re on the court, if I’m down or she’s down, we’ve got each others back, we’re going bring each other back.”
When Clark calls for the ball to go to either player, the rest of the team understands what that means.
“To be honest, sometimes it’s like, ‘You take the ball, you take the ball,’ ” Gibson said. “They say, ‘You take it, you gotta have it.’ It’s not like they’re jealous. It’s an understanding and everybody knows. At the end of the day, we’re a team and you want the team to win regardless of who has the ball.”
When Gibson, who spent her ninth grade at Montrose Christian and 10th grade at Washington Christian, decided to come to her neighborhood high school last season, Brooks was ecstatic. The two players were together again, and led the Pumas to the Maryland 4A finals, where they fell to Gaithersburg.
This winter may be the Pumas best shot at a state title. Brooks and Gibson are two of six seniors on the team; Rod Hairston, who won five straight 4A titles at Eleanor Roosevelt from 2005 to 2009, is an assistant coach under Clark; and Clark has often joked about gradually stepping away from being a head coach.
Both players have Division I potential and qualify academically, Clark said. He says he isn’t sure why colleges aren’t pursing either harder. Both said they have no offers. Gibson has interest from schools such as East Carolina and Indiana; Brooks said she has interest from schools such as Maryland-Eastern Shore and Southern Utah.
“If I’m a college coach, I’d be taking both of them together,” Clark said.
And both players would love to maintain the connection they’ve established at the next level.
“That’d be fun,” Gibson said. “It’d still be the same way in college.”
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