A Look Back at A'ja Wilson's Gamecock Career
April 10, 2018
“Just love the game and be passionate about it,” Wilson said in response to a question about what message she would offer to girls playing basketball in middle school. “When I play, I hope to show with every emotion that I have that I love the game of basketball. Of course, hard work is another thing. You have to really put the work in and believe in yourself. You’re going to need to sacrifice, but if you believe in yourself and surround yourself with good people, the sky is the limit for you.”
A’ja was the number one recruit in the nation coming out of Heathwood Hall in Columbia four years ago. All the big-time basketball programs wanted A’ja. Coach Dawn Staley’s team was already coming off its first Southeastern Conference Championship in 2014, and most of that team would be back for the next season. So, if A’ja hadn’t decided to stay at home, the program would have been fine. I had convinced myself of that.
Gamecock Nation was glued to their computer and television screens as she made her announcement.
“There’s no place like home,” Wilson said in making her choice four years ago.
Boom! South Carolina women’s basketball will be more than fine. A 6’5″ dynamo who could shoot from anywhere and could handle the basketball as well as many guards was staying home. Although she hadn’t played a game yet, Gamecock Nation celebrated.
“I just knew that Coach Staley had done such a great job with this program,” Wilson said in reflection of that moment shortly after her college career ended. “I just knew I wanted to be a part of it.”
Point guard Khadijah Sessions (Myrtle Beach), guard Asia Dozier (Columbia), forward Aleighsa Welch (Goose Creek), center Alaina Coates (Irmo), guard Tiffany Mitchell (Charlotte), and now A’ja, all believed that Staley was building something special at South Carolina, so they all stayed close to home.
“Coach Staley had the team going in the right direction, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Wilson said. “Having those other girls who stayed close to home helped in the recruiting process.
“Throughout the recruiting process, I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I think (Staley) talked to my parents more. Coach Staley is the same person now as she was when she was recruiting me. She’s honest. She’s funny sometimes. She’s just straight forward.”
Many fans know her story on the court. Off the court, what you see is what you get. She dances. She smiles a lot. Yes, A’ja is that silly. Yes, she really is that humble. Yes, she really is that kind. She loves being a role model for younger kids, and never met a selfie opportunity she didn’t like. At times, there is a lot of “little girl” in that tall frame.
“It definitely doesn’t get old. I love talking to people and taking pictures,” Wilson said. “They come up, and some just want to give me a hug. It’s special. I love bringing the state of South Carolina together in a positive way. I love being a role model.”
What most folks don’t know are the struggles she has had off the court. In addition to struggling with vertigo, which caused her to miss playing time at the end of her senior year, A’ja is dyslexic, and she made that public at the tail end of her career in the hopes of inspiring others.
“It’s lifted a lot of weight off my shoulders for people to understand, and I think it’s a great feeling because it now shows people I am still human,” Wilson said. “I think people tend to get caught up in the Basketball A’ja and not understand that there’s a whole other side that they have never really seen or met before. I think it’s a great feeling for people to now understand that it’s real. It’s real, such as mental illness, such as a learning disability.
“Some people out here, they don’t have a clue what we go through. So, to show that side of me and have people see a different look and always see there’s a different side to a student-athlete, I think it’s something good. I see the Tweets from people saying that they go through it, as well, and it’s also good to know that you are not alone in it.”
Basketball is a team sport, but A’ja’s impact on the program is undeniable.
A’ja helped South Carolina win three more SEC Regular-Season Championships and a record four consecutive SEC Tournament Titles. The Gamecocks reached the NCAA Final Four for the first time in program history during her first season, while she took home SEC Freshman of the Year honors, among many others. That team was loaded. A’ja came off the bench as a rookie, along with All-America center Alaina Coates. The starting lineup was formidable. The second wave was almost unfair.
“It definitely relaxed me a lot,” Wilson said. “Coming out of high school to college is a big transition. We had veterans like Aleighsa (Welch) and [Elem Ibiam], who took me under their wing and made it a lot easier.
“The whole team my freshman year really took me in. It was understood that we had high expectations, and there was a lot of pressure on me and our freshman class. They helped me a lot.”
By her sophomore year, A’ja was the SEC Player of the Year for the first time, as the torch was passed from teammate Tiffany Mitchell, who had taken home that honor the previous two years.
It has definitely been a blessing to play under Coach Staley and to be coached by her.A’ja Wilson
In her junior season, despite the graduation of several starters, the Gamecocks were again loaded with talent, and A’ja emerged as a National Player of the Year candidate after taking home her second-straight SEC Player of the Year honor while playing a huge role in South Carolina’s return to the NCAA Final Four and the program’s first ever National Championship. As the spotlight was flashing, A’ja would shine the brightest and was named the MVP of the Final Four when the confetti rained down on the Gamecocks in Dallas.
“That was something special because that was the year I lost my grandmother,” Wilson said. “She was my rock. I felt like she was with me for that whole game. Being able bring something home like that because it hadn’t been done before with women’s basketball was just so special. I look back and think ‘why was I being such a cry baby’ and ‘why didn’t I just cheer with my friends.’ I was just so overwhelmed with joy.”
For her senior year, there were a lot of new faces, and she would have to carry a bigger load on her 6’5″ frame. Injuries to herself as well as several fellow teammates made her final regular season a little bit of a rollercoaster.
“I did feel a little more pressure this year,” Wilson said. “I’m one of the veterans on the team, so I had to take a lot under my wing. I play with a great group of girls, and they made it easier for me to be the leader that I am.”
The Gamecocks battled their way to a runner-up finish in the SEC, and she became the first in league history to take home SEC Player of the Year honors for three straight years.
“I was actually a little surprised,” Wilson said of winning the award again. “I felt like I didn’t have the best season that I could have had because I missed a lot of games.”
Wilson missed two games in the middle of the season with an ankle injury and then missed the regular season finale while suffering from vertigo. After a week-long bout with vertigo, A’ja was back for the SEC Tournament. The Gamecocks handed Mississippi State its first loss of the season to win their fourth SEC Tournament Championship, with A’ja averaging a double-double in three games to take home tournament MVP honors.
“It’s a great feeling,” Wilson said. “To be up there with some of the great teams in SEC history, it’s a great feeling to be in the history books. This is something I’d love for my children to see.
“We were the underdogs, and we did it. Other than the national championship game, right now, this is definitely my favorite game. It was really special. We faced adversity at times this year.”
The accolades continued to pour in as Wilson guided the Gamecocks to the Elite 8 in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. She became only the seventh women’s basketball player to earn Associated Press First-Team All-America honors three times. A week later she was named the 2018 Citizen Naismith Women’s Player of the Year after several other organizations had also showered her with national player of the years honors. Now that her college playing days are over, Wilson is thankful for those who made an impact on her while at South Carolina.
“I have had a great four years,” Wilson said after her college career ended in the 2018 Elite 8. “I wouldn’t change anything. Coming to South Carolina was the best decision that I’ve made at a young age. I wouldn’t trade in anything for the time I’ve had at South Carolina.
“It has definitely been a blessing to play under Coach Staley and to be coached by her. I’ve learned so much from her, and so much from my teammates over the course of my four years. Just to be a part of something, and to show people that it could be done, it’s been a blessing.”
“You’ve got to let her spread her wings and fly in the WNBA and overseas,” Staley said of saying goodbye Wilson. “She has done so much for our program, for our state, and for our university.”
Barring something unforeseen, A’ja will have a marvelous professional career, and some day, she will have a good chance to make the U.S. National Team. She’s the gold standard; just like her coach.
But there will never be another A’ja Wilson.