Instead of quitting, she listened to Vanderbilt coach Jim Foster, who finally convinced her that perfection was not expected or even possible. "He made me realize that my perfectionism was actually hurting my game," says Gillingham.
"I still have to remind Heidi that players in the Hall of Fame only made half their shots," says Foster. "But I think I could now get her to admit she likes the game."
"I decided," Gillingham now says, "that I was going to play basketball because that's what I wanted, not what society wanted."
She still doesn't take a missed shot lightly, but, then, she doesn't miss many. Last season she made 62.5% of her shots from the floor—a good portion of them from inside the paint, where her classic back-to-the-basket, low-post game thrives. In two games last season she was perfect, shooting 12 for 12 against Arkansas and 8 for 8 against Texas.
She has also made long strides in her campaign to be more aggressive. Just ask the Western Kentucky player who last season had a potentially game-winning, buzzer-beating breakaway layup slapped away by Gillingham, who ran her opponent down from behind and spiked the ball to kingdom come. "It was the most vicious swat I have ever seen," says teammate Julie Powell admiringly. "And Heidi came out of nowhere to make it."
Gillingham showed that tenacity again in the Commodores' semifinal game against eventual national champion Texas Tech at the Final Four in Atlanta last April. The Lady Raiders shut down the rest of the Commodore offense but could not stop Gillingham, who scored 24 of Vanderbilt's 46 points while being double-teamed.
But her aggressiveness only goes so far—and does not extend to that most flamboyant of gestures: dunking the basketball. "I just have no personal desire to do it," she says, though her brother says she is more than able.
Because of her size Gillingham would strike terror into opponents' hearts even if she did nothing more than stand under the basket filing her nails. "Her presence is instant intimidation," says Vanderbilt point guard Rhonda Blades. "It changes the way teams play. With Heidi on the court, there's always an option: I can throw the ball where only she can get it."
Strategies to deal with the Heidi Factor vary. Those teams that can come close to matching her size in the post find that Gillingham is remarkably agile and more than willing to put the ball on the floor, which usually puts her opponent on the bench in foul trouble. There's also double-teaming, which Texas Tech tried to little avail. Last season during the NCAA tournament, Gillingham was even bitten. Through it all, she was unruffled. In the paint, just as in any public place full of gawking strangers, she maintains a poise that is almost otherworldly. "She's kind of out there," says former Commodore forward Sarah Mannes. "She's always thinking. There's a real curiosity about her."
Indeed, Gillingham says, "I'm often content to just sit and think. I'll do it anytime, anywhere. Sometimes I even space out at the dinner table. My teammates call it Heidiland."