SYRACUSE, N.Y.—Anton Gill entered Louisville’s Sweet 16 game against North Carolina State because of the Cardinals’ desperation. Starting wing Wayne Blackshear picked up his fourth foul with 8:31 remaining, and Gill’s entrance coincided with Louisville’s four-point lead disappearing and the end of its season looking imminent.
Gill hadn’t scored in a game since Feb. 28 and had produced more than two points in a game just once since Jan. 17. He’d been deemed a defensively liability, a former top-50 recruit averaging 2.4 points per game and destined for the transfer waver wire. But with Louisville trailing by a point, Gill drove the lane and launched an awkward runner that pierced the back of the rim. The ball improbably bounced straight up, and then down through the hoop to give Louisville the lead.
“An angel tipped that in,” assistant coach Kenny Johnson said after game. “I said [when it went in], ‘I know we’re going to win now.’”
That cosmic explanation may be the best way to describe the improbability of Anton Gill’s role as surprise hero in No. 4 Louisville’s 75-65 victory over No. 8 N.C. State in the Carrier Dome on Friday night. He scored seven points in a span of 2:18 that helped turn a one-point deficit into a five-point lead. To make the moment even more poignant, Gill grew up in Raleigh playing pick-up games at N.C. State. “I’m numb right now,” Gill said. “It hasn’t hit me yet. I don’t want it to until we get to Indianapolis.”
Ah yes, the Final Four in Indianapolis. When fate delivers an anonymous hero like Anton Gill, it allows everyone to ponder, just for a moment, the prospect of Kentucky and Louisville meeting for the national title. Imagine the apocalyptic potential of the final challenge of Kentucky’s undefeated season being Louisville. Let that marinate for a second. When the NCAA tournament began last week, that prospect seemed about as likely as, well, Anton Gill winning a game for Louisville in crunch time. But with Louisville and Kentucky two of the eight teams remaining, the possibility of Kentucky needing to beat its blood rival to complete its perfect season is becoming at the very least something to be pondered. If Louisville defeats Michigan State to reach the Final Four and Kentucky beats Notre Dame on Saturday, the Commonwealth will be fraught with frantic tension.
But to set up the potential of another feud between John Calipari and Rick Pitino, it took Pitino’s foresight that he may need Gill on Friday night. Earlier this week, after an individual workout in Louisville, he pulled Gill aside and told him the story of when he led Providence to the 1987 Final Four. Pitino mentioned Darryl Wright, who was a sophomore reserve on that team—just like Gill—and ended up as the Southeast Regional MVP. Gill responded: “I’ll be ready, coach.”
When Blackshear picked up his fourth foul, Louisville fans expected Pitino to put in 6’7” reserve wing Shaqquan Aaron. But Pitino thought back to Gill’s response earlier that week and took a gamble on the 6’3” guard playing small forward. “If he hangs his head and just listens, I play Shaqquan,” Pitino said, recalling their earlier conversation. “But he didn’t, he said, ‘I’ll be ready if you need me coach.’ I went with him.”
Gill hit his impossible runner to give Louisville the lead back. Then he drained the game’s biggest shot, a right wing three-pointer that bumped the lead to four. After two free throws from his former Hargrave Military Academy teammate, sophomore guard Terry Rozier, Gill hit a twisting runner that gave Louisville a 62-57 lead with 3:37 to go. Blackshear said later that, instead of pleading to go back in the game, he was begging the coaches to keep Gill in. “I think he’s averaging two points a game maybe, and he jumps up and gets seven at the most critical time of the game,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “You’ve got to give him credit. That was really the difference, in my opinion. That stretch right there."
The NCAA tournament is engineered for out-of-nowhere stars, like Michigan’s Spike Albrecht in the 2013 NCAA final, Vermont’s Germain Mopa Njila in 2005 against Syracuse and Villanova’s Harold Jensen in the 1985 national title game. The comparison that hits home most for Louisville fans will be former walk-on Tim Henderson, who emerged for the Cardinals in the 2013 Final Four to save the game against Wichita State.
You can add Anton Gill to that list, as years from now they’ll be recalling his name on the backstretch at Churchill Downs and atop barstools at Molly Malone’s. “I’m excited for the kid,” said former Louisville assistant Kevin Keatts, who recruited Gill. “The great thing about college basketball is that you can go from not playing to having an opportunity on a big stage. Tonight was his night.”
Louisville finds itself in the Elite Eight because it found a new identity after starting guard Chris Jones got thrown off the team in late February. Star forward Montrezl Harrell scored 24 points on Friday and provided the heartbeat, and rising star Rozier provided the sizzle, as his 17 points included a dazzling old-fashioned three-point play that followed Gill’s run. The revelation has been the emergence of Quentin Snider, the freshman guard who drove fearlessly and finished with 14 points.
But Friday night belonged to Anton Gill, who scored the biggest seven points of his life to beat his hometown team after being removed from the moth balls. “It’s been a blessing,” Gill said. “It’s been a long year, I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs. I was just happy I can help.”
And by helping Louisville advance, he carved a legacy with a vintage surprise performance. And it leaves in the air the tantalizing possibility of a matchup for the ages.