Villanova Wildcats guard Collin Gillespie (2) attempts a three point shot against the Purdue Boilermakers during the second half of a game in the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament

The air was thick with sadness in the Villanova locker room Saturday night. After the 26-point loss to Purdue in the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, starting point guard Collin Gillespie sat in his locker with his head down. He slowly peeled off his white Nike socks.

Like the rest of the Wildcats, he’d expected to take things much further. Villanova had won the championship two of the past three years — and Gillespie knew coach Jay Wright had been counting on him. Still, he was thankful for how far he’d come.

“It’s a blessing to be here.” Gillespie said after the game. “In high school I wasn’t really highly recruited, so I didn’t know where I was going to be.”

It wasn’t until he was already in his late teens that the Philly native’s talent was discovered. Following his junior year at Archbishop Wood, Gillespie spent the summer playing AAU in small local tournaments. His stock rose from a virtually unknown player to one people talked about as a possible Division I recruit. He was described as “the most sought after Division II in the country.”

Then he had a magical senior year — and caught Coach Wright’s attention.

Wright happened to be there when Gillespie put in what was arguably his best game of the season. In front of a packed house, and matched up against a McDonald’s All-American who was considered a much better prospect, Gillespie scored 42 points, and had eight rebounds and seven assists, leading the Vikings to a win over perennial powerhouse Neumann Goretti.

That game cemented Gillepsie as one of the best players in Philadelphia, if not the best.

Later that season, he would be named Catholic League MVP after taking his team to a victorious Catholic League Championship. They went on to win district and state titles.

No surprise Wright scooped him up for Villanova, then. In his first year on the squad, Gillespie played in all 35 games. He started in one, and was consistently helpful off the bench. In Villanova’s win over Michigan for the 2018 NCAA title, he contributed 16 minutes and four points.

Four members of that championship winning team were picked up by the NBA — thrusting Gillispie into the starting point guard role much earlier than expected. He’d be replacing Jalen Brunson, now a Dallas Maverick and considered one of the best guards in the country.

Big shoes for anybody to fill, but Gillespie handled it well. In his new role this season, he helped the Wildcats to an impressive 25-and-9 season that also saw Villanova win the Big East, both in regular season play and in the championship tournament.

Gillespie averaged just under 11 points per game and 2 assists this season. But what’s not shown on the stat sheet is the toughness and effort he plays with.

Gillespie drives against Purdue guard Carsen Edwards during the second half of the NCAA Tournament game Credit: David Butler II / USA TODAY Sports

From the opening of that fateful Purdue game — when he hit two early 3-pointers — to the end when the Cats were down by thirty, Gillespie’s intensity and tenacity never wavered.

“Growing up in my family we pride ourselves on being tough — playing tough,” he said. “I think that’s what we do here with Villanova basketball, just playing tough, playing with a chip on your shoulder.”

As he walked off the court with under a minute to go, knowing his multi-year postseason streak was coming to an end, he gave his coach a huge hug. The mentor reminded the promising guard there’s still plenty of playtime ahead of him.

“It’s a learning experience,” Gillespie said Wright told him. “We have to learn from, it grow from it — [then] come back next year and get back to work.”