CONWAY — Speaking by phone after his Coastal Carolina basketball team edged out Longwood in its Big South Conference opener Saturday, coach Cliff Ellis warned he was going to start sounding like a broken record.
The Chanticleers had won thanks to a combined 66 points from their three starting guards, and Ellis used the opportunity to again say – in what is indeed becoming a familiar refrain – that the team is ultimately going to have to find more inside scoring if it hopes to be a contender in the conference.
Until that happens, though, the Chants will just have to hope for more Warren Gillis.
The sophomore guard had a breakout performance in the win at Longwood with a career-high 21 points, well exceeding his previous high of 14, as he hit 10-of-16 shots and more importantly took some of the defensive pressure off senior guards Anthony Raffa and Kierre Greenwood.
“We need him because there’s a lot of teams keying on me and Kierre,” Raffa said. “... He did that last game at Longwood.”
And Coastal (6-6, 1-0 Big South) will hope he can do it again Wednesday night against Presbyterian (3-12, 0-1).
Raffa had a game-high 26 points in that win over Longwood and ranks second in the league at 19.5 points per game, but earlier in the season opponents found that if they could shut down the 6-foot-1 senior sparkplug, they could shut down Coastal. Boston did it twice, holding Raffa to eight and 10 points, and College of Charleston managed to hold Raffa scoreless while rolling to a convincing win. The Chants were simply lacking reliable scoring options beyond him and Greenwood (13.4 points per game).
The hope all along was that Gillis could be that kind of contributor, and if Saturday was any indication, well, maybe he can. The 6-foot-3 sophomore scored 13 of his points in the second half against Longwood in a game that remained tight until the final minute.
“I think I can step into that role a lot more,” Gillis said. “The past couple games I [hadn’t] been able to play the whole game because of foul trouble or injuries, so I was just waiting for the opportunity to be aggressive the whole game.”
Gillis sustained a foot strain early in the season and admitted it’s still not 100-percent healed, “but it’s as close as it’s going to get.”
The second-year player from Philadelphia saw some meaningful playing time as a rookie last season, averaging 15.3 minutes while making three starts and playing in 30 games. He averaged a modest 3.7 points in his first taste of Division I college basketball, and at times earlier this season, he looked uncomfortable with his shot. That seems to be changing, though, as he’s shooting 62.5 percent (15-of-24) over the last two games.
“I knew I could do it because I did it before in prep school,” Gillis said of piling up the points. “So it was just basically getting back to the fundamentals because I lost that the beginning of last year.”
Ellis said he noticed a more confident player as soon as Gillis returned to the team this summer and reiterated that it’s all part of the natural progression from one year to the next for a young player.
“I think the fact that Warren has had a year, he’s gotten confidence, he’s in the starting lineup, he’s used to the system, I think we see a difference in a guy [from] being a freshman to being a sophomore,” Ellis said. “He’s a lot more confident, and he’s worked on his game. In the summer time, he spent a lot of time on his shot and it’s paying dividends.”
And until the Chants find a way to collect a few more points in the paint, well, they’ll just have to hope the sophomore’s stock continues to rise through the course of Big South play and a conference race that appears to be wide open.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.