Warren Gillis admits that it’s on his mind this week, that any game at this point could be his last with Coastal Carolina, that his collegiate basketball career has flown by in four years leaving only the ending to be written.
And that drives him.
The senior guard will lead the No. 3-seeded Chanticleers against No. 6 UNC Asheville on Friday night at The HTC Center in a Big South quarterfinals matchup, trying to keep the season going and add to what is already a pretty strong resume he’s built within the program.
“It is something I think about a lot, but I just try to worry about giving it all I got, preparation and everything – anything I can do to help myself this weekend,” Gillis said. “This is the last stand for me, so I’m just trying to give it everything I’ve got.”
These last two seasons especially, that has seemed to be a given most nights for the 6-foot-3 guard from Philadelphia.
As much for his signature floaters in the lane and mid-range jumpers, Gillis has become known by fans for the steady resolve, the clutch-under-pressure reputation he’s earned and the consistency that has made him coach Cliff Ellis’ most trusted asset on the court.
And that’s what has made these last four years all the more rewarding and special for those who knew Gillis before he got to Conway, those who have actually seen a significant transformation take place beneath that even-keeled, unchanging exterior of his personality.
“He’s showed me a lot. I wasn’t sure if he would even be able to make it as a college basketball player because I wasn’t sure he had that drive all the time,” his father, Warren Gillis Jr. admitted. “But he showed me he could and he showed himself.”
The elder Gillis said it’s been a big deal back home for people who watched his son grow up as a player to see what he’s accomplished at Coastal Carolina, to see the potential they always imagined for him fully manifest itself as he’s climbed the program scoring list with 1,286 career points while helping the Chants return to the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in 21 years.
That Gillis was named the most valuable player of the Big South tournament last year, well, that was as strong a statement as any about his growth, his father said over the phone Thursday.
“There was a time he didn’t work hard and that’s why he didn’t have scholarships [coming out of high school]. And that was the only reason because he always had the talent,” Gillis Jr. said. “The coaches would come out to see him play and he’d have a great game and they’d come out and see him again and it’s like he wasn’t even on the floor. I told him you have to work hard all the time, and I think that’s the thing I’ve seen. He works hard. He works on his game and I’ve seen improvement every year.”
And through no coincidence, so have the Chants.
Setting the stage
As the elder Gillis noted, Warren Gillis III didn’t have many choices basketball-wise coming out of high school, so he went to prep school for a year at Rise Academy in Philadelphia and started filling up box scores against well-regarded competition.
Suddenly, he had plenty of suitors.
Gillis Jr. said his son had 10 or 11 colleges showing strong interest in him at that point, and that he ended up at Coastal Carolina was something of a surprise to his family in some regards.
Pennsylvania was interested even though they could only offer a partial scholarship and Gillis Jr. thinks his son might well have ended up there, close to home, if not for a fateful phone call while we was visiting Conway.
“We go on a visit and the coach from the University of Pennsylvania calls him while we’re down at Coastal and tells him, ‘I need you to make a decision right now if you’re going to go to Penn,’” Gillis Jr. said. “I remember the look on his face when he hung up the phone. I said, ‘No you don’t. Don’t let anyone hold you hostage. You’re down here on a visit, forget about him, go finish your visit.’ I think that helped him make the decision to go to Coastal because Cliff Ellis came with a whole different approach – ‘Take your time, Warren. This is a big decision. I want you, you’re the top guy on my list, but you can’t rush into this decision.’
“When he left Coastal, he said ‘I’m going to Coastal.’”
Still, recruiters were telling the family that Coastal Carolina wouldn’t make it to the NCAA tournament – the Chants hadn’t been there since 1993, after all – and another Big South team was making an equally strong push for Gillis as well.
Liberty coach Dale Layer, who was just let go by the Flames on Wednesday night, visited the family at their home and made his pitch.
“Ironically, he didn’t want to go to Liberty because he came from a high school that was a religious school and [wanted something different]. And I think that was the only reason he didn’t go,” Gillis Jr. said.
He wanted his son to consider all options, though, and so he urged him to make a visit to Southern Mississippi. The younger Gillis was miserable throughout the trip and later passed on making a visit to Xavier. He knew where he wanted to go.
Gillis Jr. said he wasn’t sure at the time his son made the right choice – the family really didn’t know much about Coastal Carolina before the recruiting process – but looking back he no longer has any doubt.
“It turned out to to be the right choice,” he said. “Coach Ellis was a great choice for him.”
And perhaps just as important, Gillis had found his motivation at that point after being disappointed at the lack of offers coming out of high school and having to wait that extra year to launch his collegiate career.
He was eager to prove himself.
“I think that disappointment helped him, though, helped him become who he is today,” Gillis Jr. said.
Finding his voice
That doesn’t mean these last four years have been without hiccups or setbacks.
The younger Gillis admits he battled some frustration his freshman year while seeing his playing time fluctuate during the course of the season as he averaged 3.7 points and 15.3 minutes per game.
“The more trust I got, the better I played and we’ve been on the same page ever since,” he said of his relationship with Ellis.
As the de facto veteran on the roster last season, Ellis and the Chants were looking at Gillis to become the team leader. He had progressed in his second season, averaging 10.5 points per game as a sophomore, but his junior campaign didn’t start off as hoped.
He was benched for the start of the season’s second game as Ellis sent him a message, one his father says he had tried to convey himself.
“I told him it was going to happen,” Gillis Jr. said. “I said, ‘You’re going to get benched because you’re not playing like you’re capable of, you’re not playing like Coach Ellis needs you to play.’ … He’s very smart. He’s very intelligent. He knows. I said it before it happened so I didn’t have to say much more after it. I didn’t want to beat him up about it. I just said, ‘Listen, you need to step up.’”
The message resonated.
After starting 6-7 last season, the Chants would turn things around and start building momentum all the way to the NCAA tournament with Gillis among the key catalysts while averaging a career-best 14.7 points per game.
It wasn’t just his play on the court, though – he was finally becoming that presence the Chants needed.
“[Assistant coach Don Hogan told me] when they played Central Connecticut, at halftime he led a [players]-only meeting and I was like, ‘Warren? He doesn’t ever say much,’” Gillis Jr said. “And that was when their season turned around last year. That’s the stuff you have to do if you want to be successful. You have to lead.”
Sitting in the Coastal Carolina basketball offices earlier this week reflecting on his collegiate career, Gillis didn’t seem interested in talking about stats or where his body of work ranks in program history.
Those 1,286 career points currently sit 11th on the program’s all-time list – 35 points from the top 10 – and he’s tied for second all-time with 121 games played.
But it’s those other qualities of his game and accomplishments that have meant the most to him, he said.
“I didn’t even score 1,000 points in high school so it wasn’t anything that was ever on my mind,” he said. “I really just wanted to come in and win championships and go to the tournament and that was it.”
He tallied 22 points and seven assists in the Big South championship game last year to help make that ultimate goal a reality for he and the program, and now he’d like to do it again this week, trying to lead the Chants to back-to-back NCAA tournament berths for the first time in program history.
Aside from that Big South tournament MVP award last year, Gillis has mostly flown under the radar of the top accolades, though. He doesn’t have the eye-popping overall stats compared to other players in the conference, and yet he’s the glue that holds together one of the league’s best teams.
He was named second-team All-Big South this week for the second year in a row and Ellis said he feels Gillis deserved to be on the first team, but then again, he couldn’t argue with any other players who earned that nod instead.
Nonetheless, he has his own determination of Gillis’ value.
“He’s got basketball IQ. He knows the game on all ends of the spectrum, offensively and defensively. He’s a quiet leader, but he knows what to do on the court. He knows what to tell the team to do,” Ellis said. “So he’s a coach, he’s an extension and that means so much in the heat of the game. He knows what I’m going to call. Sometimes he’ll even make the call, and having that is just so much value.”
For his part, Gillis seems plenty content with the legacy he’s established.
“I just want to be remembered as somebody who put the team first and always wanted to win,” he said. “That’s just something I want to be remembered for. That was the special thing about winning the tournament here for the school because that was something hadn’t happened in such a long time. It felt like it was something [bigger] than the team, for the school and the community.”
To do it twice, well, that would really be an exclamation point on that college basketball resume of his.
No matter what happens this week, though, there’s a palpable pride that comes across in hearing Ellis or Gillis Jr. talk about the senior guard and what he’s become these last few years.
And as for motivation and focus, that’s certainly not a question anymore – this week especially.
“It’s more important than anything,” Gillis said. “It’s really the last time I get to play in this gym so it’s really something special to me.”