When Anton Gill was in high school at Ravenscroft, N.C. State was one of the first schools to offer him a scholarship. The Wolfpack had a logjam at guard, with Cat Barber and Trevor Lacey coming and Ralston Turner and Tyler Lewis already there. Gill went to Louisville instead.
Two years later, he almost single-handedly ushered N.C. State out of the NCAA tournament with his only points in the month of March. The ACC is moving on, but N.C. State is not after a 75-65 loss to Louisville in the East Region semifinal Friday night.
This doesn't happen. The local kid doesn't come out of nowhere to eliminate his hometown team. He doesn't come off the bench after the Wolfpack takes the lead with seven minutes to go and score seven of Louisville's next nine points to put the Cardinals back in the lead for good. But it happened. Just like that.
“It's kind of weird,” Gill said. “I didn't really realize we were playing N.C. State, my hometown team, until somebody asked me about it yesterday, because we've been so focused on what we need to do as a team. It's funny how things work, and I'm just blessed to be in this opportunity.”
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Who saw this coming? Not Gill, who had played only two minutes in Louisville's two previous NCAA tournament games, who hadn't scored a single point in the month of March. Maybe Rick Pitino, who told Gill this week about Darryl Wright, who came out of nowhere to help Pitino's 1987 Providence team to the Final Four.
Gill plays pickup ball when he’s home in the summer at the Dail Center. He may not be invited back.
“I just told myself whatever it was, try to make something happen,” Gill said.
Fitting, given the circumstances. In an ACC game played on an ACC court, N.C. State was ushered out of the NCAA tournament by two players from the state of North Carolina. Tarboro's Montrezl Harrell was Louisville's best player, dominating N.C. State inside for 24 points, and Gill swung the game in Louisville's favor.
“It just didn't work out for us to recruit him like that,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “He's a good player. I always felt that way. You can't take everybody.”
The Wolfpack's regular-season win at Louisville helped get N.C. State into the NCAA tournament, helped turn N.C. State's season around. The Cardinals won when it really mattered.
The last time the Wolfpack made it this far, the circumstances were completely different. It was Gottfried's first year, piecing together the wreckage of the Sidney Lowe era, building a team out of the talent Lowe left behind, a job that was as much Walter White as John Wooden, managing the chemistry of that group.
That run was unexpected, from being the last team into the field to coming within a possession of beating Kansas in St. Louis (with North Carolina next). It ended, like so many of State's seasons that have ended in a regional semifinal, against a juggernaut.
This run was, if not expected, not a surprise. The Wolfpack's comeback against Louisiana State was a real statement of intent, the win over Villanova a further validation of the Wolfpack's ability. After all, N.C. State beat better teams than Villanova during the regular season. With Lacey's ability to make impossible shots and Barber's speed and Turner's outside shooting, the impossible was always possible with this team.
Unlike Kansas in 2012, State was probably the better team Friday, having already beaten the Cardinals in Louisville this season, before the Cardinals lost Chris Jones. But the better team doesn't always win, a big reason why this tournament is always so entertaining. And so devastating.
Another reason: Sometimes the kid from Raleigh knocks out the team from Raleigh. You couldn't make it up, but the Wolfpack couldn't stop him, either.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947