DALLAS – A’ja Wilson was close to her late grandmother. She has her name, Hattie Rakes, tattooed on her wrist. Wilson rubs her tattoo during games, a habit to keep her grounded and feel close. Sunday was no different as South Carolina achieved its first NCAA basketball title in program history.
“I just kind of rubbed across here and she really helped me. She was within me this game,” Wilson said. “For her to be up in heaven with a front-row seat to this game, I hope she’s cheering for joy.”The 67-55 victory over Mississippi State was a long time coming for both South Carolina and Wilson. She was close to tasting victory as a freshman, making it to the Final Four, and again as a sophomore, the season ending in the Sweet 16. Now as a junior, she will return home as the championship game’s leading scorer with a double-double, scoring 23 points and finishing with 10 rebounds.
“I’ve got to make an impact with my team and for my team,” she said. “That’s something I took a lot of pride in in the fourth quarter. I knew I did not want to go home packing my clothes, crying out of sadness. I wanted to go home with a trophy.”
The tears did come. She left the game with a minute to go, as Coach Dawn Staley put in her substitutes with the national title imminent. Wilson looked up as the seconds ticked away, promptly put a towel over her face and wept, her shoulders shaking with the sheer emotion of it all.As the buzzer sounded, her teammates Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray rushed over as Wilson fell to the ground.
“She’s emotional and this means the world to her,” Davis said. “Just being from South Carolina and believing so much in coach and the university, I’m sure it’s absolutely crazy. She played amazing and she should be really happy. I’m happy for coach, but for her as well.”
Gray said she and Wilson had a heart-to-heart talk before the game, when they discussed what this moment meant to them.“As the number one player out of high school, she could have gone anywhere she decided and she envisioned winning a national championship here,” Gray said. “I told her, ‘A’Ja, I’ve got you. I’m not going to let you lose this game.’”
More than an hour after the game, Wilson was still teary-eyed, a self-proclaimed “sensitive person,” and she knows exactly what her grandmother would say if she could see her.
“She would tell me, ‘Stop crying, girl. God’s got you,’” Wilson said with a grin.
She is still in disbelief, unsure how to begin processing her emotions or how she’ll feel in the days to come. “Well, you have to sleep in order to wake up. And I don’t think I’m going to sleep,” she said.