NEW ORLEANS — Away from the basketball court, Collin Gillespie tends to carry himself with all the openness and naked emotion of a special agent with a secret to guard and a mission to complete. His father is a Philadelphia police detective, and it’s easy to see that Jim Gillespie passed down the discretion and discipline that his job demands. Get Collin one-on-one – not for a game to 11, just for a conversation – and there’s always the sense that he’s sizing you up, and you’ll get nothing but name, rank, and serial number from him until he’s comfortable enough, until he trusts you enough, to give you more.

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To know that about Gillespie was to understand that Saturday night promised to test the strength of his implacable exterior in a way that nothing in his Villanova career had before. Yes, he had torn the medial collateral ligament in his left knee 13 months ago, an injury that prevented him playing at all in last year’s NCAA Tournament. But this national-semifinal matchup against Kansas, his 156th game for the Wildcats, threatened to be his last game for the Wildcats.

The Jayhawks were deeper, more talented, the better team, especially for Justin Moore’s absence from Villanova’s lineup because of his torn Achilles tendon. All that was assured for Gillespie – for the two-time Big East Player of the Year, for the conference’s scholar athlete and its conference tournament MVP, for one of the most consequential players in Villanova history – was that he and his teammates would spill their guts on the Superdome court.

They did, and it wasn’t nearly enough, and with 35.1 seconds left in Kansas’ 81-65 victory, Chris Arcidiacono reported to the scorer’s table at a stoppage in play, and Gillespie trudged to the Wildcats’ sideline, hugging Jay Wright, hugging one by one the assistant coaches and his teammates, making his way to the end of the bench, where he could pull his jersey over his face. For an athlete such as Gillespie, so accomplished and familiar and vital to a franchise or university or program, the close of a career can bring on testimonials that sound like eulogies without death. He was still wiping his eyes 20 minutes after the game when those tributes began.

“He’s one of the greatest Villanova basketball players, but also one of the greatest Villanova people that I’ve ever met,” senior Brandon Slater said. “I’ll go to war for Collin Gillespie any day. It’s amazing to have somebody like him with you your whole career and to see what he’s become and to see how he’s helped me personally and the rest of our players. He holds to us the same standard that he holds himself, and that’s all you can ask for is somebody who embodies the true meaning of Villanova basketball.”

“At Villanova,” Wright said, “the mission of the university is about community and love and truth. And he’s just ... he’s a Villanova man.”

Gillespie finished the game with 17 points, having played 39 minutes, but as usual with him, the statistics didn’t say all that needed to be said, all that everyone had seen. Wright had asked only everything of Gillespie on Saturday. Without Moore, Wright had to move Caleb Daniels into the starting lineup, meaning that Villanova’s first two players off the bench would be Bryan Antoine and Arcidiacono, both of whom had played sparingly throughout this tournament and who were generally overmatched against the Jayhawks. More, once Ochai Agbaji, Kansas’ All-America guard, hit his first five three-point attempts in the game and no other Villanova defender proved able to stop him, Wright put Gillespie on him. So, along with orchestrating the Wildcats’ offense on one end of the floor, Gillespie had to guard the Jayhawks’ best player on the other.

The difference between the two teams on this night required such desperation from Wright, and there were moments when Gillespie seemed capable of saving them. As he had against Houston in the Elite 8, he struggled to play his back-down post-up game against the Jayhawks’ size and strength. But after Kansas built a 19-point lead, Gillespie unfurled a stretch in which he scored eight points, grabbed a rebound, broke up an attempted alley-oop, and locked up Agbaji, part of a 10-minute stretch in which Agbaji went scoreless. He drilled a three, cut the Kansas lead to nine, and pumped his fist like a piston as Bill Self took a timeout.

That the Wildcats were down just 11 at halftime, that they pared the deficit down to six with 6 minutes, 10 seconds to go, made it possible to envision a quasi-miracle scenario: a stunning rally, one more game for Gillespie, this one for a national championship. First the back-to-back three-pointers late in the Big East Tournament title game, then the clutch jumpers against Michigan and Houston in the South Regional semifinals and finals: Maybe here was another rescue mission for someone who seemed to specialize in them. In the days before an elimination game, in the heat of the competition, victory in any form is the only outcome that coaches and athletes in these situations allow themselves to envision.

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“You do not think about it at all because it’s almost like you don’t want to,” Wright said the other day. “But when that last game hits, it hits you like a ton of bricks, and that’s what makes you emotional. When you lose the last game, it’s not losing the game, because usually whenever you lose, especially if you get this far, everybody is giving all they’ve got. You’re not disappointed. But it hits you, like, this is it for my coaching relationship with Collin Gillespie on the floor. With Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, this is it. That’s what makes you really emotional. I do not look forward to that. But I know it’s going to come.

“The great thing is, if you win, you don’t really deal with that. It hits you gradually some weeks later. But in your career, most times you end with a loss.”

There was nothing gradual about the ending Saturday. The Kansas Jayhawks were the better team, and with the way they were playing, they weren’t losing to any team in America. On a night he was asked to give everything, one more night when he was willing to and did, Collin Gillespie walked off the floor for the final time as a Villanova Wildcat. “I loved every second of it,” he said. “I have brothers that will last me a lifetime now, and I have coaches that I’ll be friends with for life as well. And I’m just super-grateful to have been a part of this.” He left with tears streaking his face, his trademark stoicism finally falling away, but all else about him as it always has been: his honor and legacy intact and unblemished, his spirit unbroken.