For years in Connecticut she was bigger, stronger, faster than the players around her. All-everything. And then she spent two seasons as one of a dozen all-everythings, fighting for minutes on a great college team. Finally, Kiah Gillespie found herself sitting, reflecting, re-imagining.
“It was a year I definitely needed for myself,” Gillespie says, “to develop my game and try to figure out what player I wanted to be when I came back to the court.”
Gillespie, 6-foot-2, from Meriden and Capital Prep, was the Gatorade Connecticut player of the year, The Courant’s player of the year, and a McDonald’s All-American in 2015. Her senior season numbers — 31.2 points and 16.2 rebounds — were just ridiculous. She picked Maryland, but transferred to Florida State. As she sat out the 2017-18 season, she pretended each practice to be the best player with the Seminoles’ next opponent, Myisha Hines-Allen of Louisville one day, maybe one of Notre Dame’s guards the next.
She had the talent to simulate just about anyone. She’s always been a LeBron fan, a Maya Moore fan, a Candace Parker fan, a Carmelo Anthony fan.
But who would Kiah Gillespie finally turn out to be?
“Did I want to be more of a role player?” she says, “or take on more of a leadership role? Coming into this season, I realized I wanted to be more of a leader. I just knew that my wisdom in seeing how playing two years at a different college can be, I could lead in ways that [others] couldn’t.”
So Gillespie’s year of self-discovery ended and now she is leading Florida State, with 17.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, playing 30 minutes, setting the example for young players who are just learning, as she did, that everybody has top-shelf talent in college.
“Kiah has been exceptional for us in so many ways,” coach Sue Semrau says. “She took her year in residency to develop strong relationships with her teammates. That has made her a strong leader. Her play speaks for itself and her character is everything we look for in our student-athletes.”
After Gillespie scored 27 points in 29 minutes in a victory over Penn State, Semrau told reporters she was the most “relational” player she’s ever coached. “If I were in college,” Semrau said, “she’d be my friend.”
At Maryland, Gillespie averaged 10 minutes, 5.1 points as a freshman, nine minutes, 4.1 as a sophomore, and decided it was best to move on and figure things out.
“I definitely don’t regret [going to Maryland],” Gillespie says. “I spent a good two years there, it didn’t work out. My biggest takeaway was working on myself, working on myself as a person and a player as a whole — becoming more of a gym rat. I had to be better myself and find ways to contribute to the team besides just scoring points. At Maryland, that wasn’t really my strong point. I didn’t really know how to contribute without scoring, and having that year out and reflecting on my two years there, I know how to do that now, as I’ve gotten older and more mature.”
She visited Tallahassee and chose a school that did not recruit her out of Capital Prep. As she served her season on the sideline, Gillespie felt the constant coaching and love from Semrau.
“I knew I was in the right place last season when I wasn’t playing and Coach Sue still spoke to me every practice,” Gillespie says. “She just tells me every day, ‘I believe in you, and I’m so happy you’re here and I love you, I love you as a player.’ That’s everything I need to hear and it keeps me motivated to play here and want to work hard. She groomed me for this moment, and I can’t thank her enough.”
A social science major, Gillespie is on track to graduate this spring, but will have another season of eligibility. If she plays as a grad student it will be at Florida State; this is her basketball home now. “I would never consider [another school],” she says. “I love where I am now.”
As the Seminoles (9-1) won at St. John’s in New York on Sunday — Gillespie scored 22 points with seven rebounds — and moved closer to ACC play, Gillespie imagined what she might have told her younger self to make the road easier. And then she stops and acknowledges that universal truth: that we all grow on our own schedule, profit from our experiences, figure out who we are in due time.
“I had a successful high school career, but I would have told myself to go a little harder, be in the gym a little more,” Gillespie says. “It took me to be a redshirt junior in college to realize it’s not going to come easy. It was easier for me at 12 or 13 because I was bigger than everybody else. I would just go back and tell myself that you’ve got to work harder and you’ve got to train harder and look at every aspect of your game, not just one part. Don’t get caught up in what people are saying, just do what you need to do to be successful. If I had done that, it might be totally different right now — but I’m glad with the way things came out.”