RALEIGH — ANTHONY GILL was living every college basketball player’s dream. His Virginia basketball team was playing in the NCAA basketball tournament, and Gill was seated in front of his locker at PNC Arena fielding questions from a horde of media.
Gill was a long way removed from the one year on the South Carolina campus when thoughts of playing in the postseason were dismissed as quickly as Darrin Horn, the Gamecocks’ coach, who was let go following the 2011-12 season.
“When (Horn) left, it kind of took a toll on me,” Gill said this past weekend. “He was the guy I looked up to, as far as a coach. When he left, I really didn’t want to go through another transition season again. So, I decided to make the move, and it was the best move to suit me.”
The move meant sitting out the 2012-13 season under NCAA transfer rules, then becoming a valuable sixth-man contributor to a championship club at Virginia. The Cavaliers won both the ACC’s regular-season and tournament championships this season.
Virginia also advanced out of the Raleigh Regional and into the Sweet 16, meaning Gill has played in two more NCAA tournament victories than his former program has produced in the past 43 years.
“I knew they were right there on the verge,” Gill said of Virginia, which plays Michigan State on FriThursday night in New York City. “They had all the pieces, and with all the newcomers coming in, had a lot of potential. I knew coach (Tony) Bennett had something in place already that I wanted to be a part of.”
Gill needed most of the regular season to fully recognize his role on the talented Virginia team. Like every one of the Cavaliers, who lead the nation in scoring defense, Gill first had to acclimate his game to playing at another level when the opposition has the ball.
Now, the 6-foot-8 Gill is contributing in other ways, as well. Over the past six games, Gill is averaging 26 minutes despite not starting. He is scoring 13.8 points (compared to 8.8 during the regular season) per game and getting 5.3 rebounds (compared to 4.1 earlier).
“He brings another dimension to our team that we didn’t have, just his ability to draw fouls, get to the line,” Bennett said of Gill, who has averaged seven free-throw attempts over the past six games, including 17 against Duke in the ACC tournament championship game. “He can score.”
USC coaches knew that when they first began recruiting Gill as a freshman at Charlotte Christian School. Virginia Tech was the first school to begin recruiting Gill in 2008, and Horn soon was knocking on the ninth-grader’s door.
Horn had just arrived at USC and he recognized that a player of Gill’s caliber could provide the cornerstone to building a successful program. The next summer, Gill attended a camp at USC for “elite” players and was won over by Horn and his staff. But Gill broke both his nose and his wrist during that camp.
Nevertheless, Gill still attended another “elite” camp the following weekend at Virginia. Knowing he could not play in games, Gill still wanted to introduce himself to the Virginia coaching staff.
“I was just new on the job, so I needed to watch him play,” Bennett said. “I’m not going to offer without seeing him play.”
Horn liked Gill enough to offer a scholarship, and Gill committed to USC early in his sophomore season. By his senior season, Gill had garnered enough attention to make him one of USC’s most highly regarded recruits.
Joining junior college transfer Brenton Williams and freshman Damien Leonard in that class, Gill made his presence known for the Gamecocks. He started 26 games, and averaged 8 points to go with 5 rebounds. But USC struggled to a 10-21 record.
Horn was fired shortly after the conclusion of his fourth season.
Gill waited a week or so, worked out with the team, and learned what he could about new USC coach Frank Martin. Then Gill decided it was time for a change. He refutes the Internet chat room buzz that Horn and his staff urged him to transfer.
“I didn’t really want to leave, but I knew it would be the best for me,” Gill said. “I loved the people at South Carolina. They were really nice to me, and they treated me like family. But I knew it would be the best move for me.”
Once Gill asked for his release from a USC scholarship, coaches from around the country began courting his services. A player transferring is allowed five recruiting visits, and Gill took trips to Ohio State and Virginia, although North Carolina was considered a strong option.
After deciding on Virginia, Gill said he has never looked back. Now he continues to realize the dream of every college basketball player as Virginia strives to reach the NCAA tournament Final Four in quest of a national championship.
And USC is left to wonder about what might have been.