Villanova’s Collin Gillespie was ‘not afraid’, say Archbishop Wood’s teammates

As Archbishop Wood’s underclass, Collin Gillespie was already fearless on the basketball court.

Wood’s coach John Mosco recalled a February 2015 game at the tiny gymnasium of eternal Roman Catholic power in which the Vikings trailed 20-10 after one quarter. Gillespie, then a sophomore, picked up a 64-58 comeback win with a 22-point outing. Roman went on to finish 14-2 in the Philadelphia Catholic League and won the PIAA Class 4A title that year.

“It was the first time they had lost there in about seven years,” Mosco said. “Collin was not afraid of the big moment. He never backed down from any situation. … I knew at that moment that he would be good, but no one thought he would be good or that good at Villanova. “

Now a graduate student at Villanova, Gillespie and Villanova advanced to the Final Four against Kansas on Saturday night (6:09 a.m.) in New Orleans. A win would give the Wildcats a spot in Monday’s championship game against winner Duke-North Carolina.

Gillespie, a two-time Big East Conference Player of the Year and one of 15 finalists for the John R. Wooden Award as the nation’s most outstanding player, was comfortable with the ball in his hands late in games back then and even more so now.

During Tuesday’s on-campus media availability session, Gillespie said he remembers the 2015 signing victory over Roman very well.

“It was tight all the way,” Gillespie said. “They were a great team. It was just a fun game. We had promise. We had older guys like Luke Connaghan, Ryan Neher, Tommy Funk. Those guys kind of carried us through this season.

“…I was a younger guy and my role was just to shoot 3s and do whatever it took to win. We leaned on our older guys and they did that for us. My and Tyree (Pickron) hitting a few shots was a good win for the program. These guys were starting to build something special (in Mosco’s second year at Wood).”

In the 2016-17 Catholic League Championship game against Neumann-Goretti at the Palestra, Wood trailed 15 points in the second quarter, only to rely on Gillespie in stride in a 65-58 victory for the first PCL title program after Matt Cerruti and Pickron combined for 19 points in the third quarter. Gillespie had a game-high 24 points and converted 8 of 9 free throws in the fourth period.

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“He struggled in the first half,” said Wood’s teammate Andrew Funk, a three-year-old Bucknell starter who plans to transfer for his fifth season of eligibility. “He was terrific in the fourth quarter. When it came to winning, it was Collin. We kind of knew it was coming – we were just waiting for it.”

Gillespie’s high school career culminated when the Vikings won the 2016-17 Class 5A PIAA State Championship and Gillespie earned Pennsylvania 5A Player of the Year honors.

Still, it looked like Gillespie might end up playing Division II varsity ball until some lower-level Division I schools and then Villanova offered him a scholarship at the start of his senior year – just before his performance of 42 points in a win over Kentucky engages Quade Green and Neumann-Goretti.

“He’s a very confident boy,” said Cerruti, who played three years at Lock Haven before moving to the University of Albany this season. “When he signed up for Villanova, I feel like a lot of people had doubts because he wasn’t highly rated. He knew what he was capable of. He proved it.”

A 6-foot-3 playmaker, Gillespie came off the sidelines for the Wildcats’ 2017-18 NCAA Championship team, but has started the past four seasons and was a leading scorer in all three latest. He leads ‘Nova in scoring (15.6 points), assists (3.3), 3-pointers (108) and shooting career-high percentages on 3 (.409) and free throws (.905) this season .

For the Wildcats to claim their third title in seven years, they will need to overcome the loss of second-leading scorer Justin Moore to a torn right Achilles tendon he suffered late in the Elite Eight win over Houston on Saturday.

“I keep telling my friends, ‘If anybody’s going to do it, win a national championship, it’s going to be him,'” Funk said. “People ask me if (his upward trajectory will) ever stop and I say I don’t know if it will. The kid keeps going up.”

Gillespie can have a major impact even if he doesn’t shoot well when passing to an open teammate, catching a rebound or coming in with a loose ball. He also seems to have a short memory when it comes to what happened earlier in the game.

Archbishop Wood senior Collin Gillespie, centre, with head coach John Mosco, right, and assistant Chris Roantree, celebrate winning the 2017 PCL title.

“I think that’s an underrated part of him,” Funk said. “If a spectator is looking at your face, you don’t want them to know if you missed the last 20 shots or if you hit the last 20. Collin is like that.

“He forgets everything he’s done before and makes winning plays,” Mosco said.

That hasn’t changed since Gillespie’s high school days.

Tom Moore: tmoore@couriertimes; @TomMoorePhilly

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