COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina forward A'ja Wilson is perhaps standing taller than ever after a season in which she and the defending national champions struggled.
The 6-5 senior became the first three-time Southeastern Conference player of the year and set South Carolina's career scoring mark while mentoring the next group of Gamecocks and thriving as the best women's college basketball player.Wilson is a leading candidate to be named national player of the year.
"She has embraced her ambassadorship," college basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli said.
At some point over the next few weeks, Wilson's impressive college journey will end. She and the Gamecocks are seeded No. 2 in the Albany Regional. They'll open Friday night at home against No. 15 seed North Carolina A&T.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley knows the emotions will flow as Wilson's time in Columbia winds down.
"When a player has had that kind of impact on you personally and this program, you get a little emotional because you may not get another player like that ever," Staley said.
Staley fought like crazy four years ago to keep Wilson, who lived about a half-hour from campus in Hopkins, close to home. She had to fend off the likes of UConn and Tennessee.
Wilson knew as a high school senior she wanted the challenge of helping South Carolina's rising program achieve milestones it had not before, one she saw fulfilled amid the confetti and cheers after winning the national championship in Dallas last April.
Within days, the several starters on that team were gone. Alaina Coates was a senior and juniors Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray gave up their eligibility for the WNBA. Wilson's role instantly changed into a teacher as well as main threat on the court.
"Shifting gears is never a hard thing for me," Wilson said. "I love to put myself in those situations because that's how I grow."
Not that it's been easy.
Wilson fouled out in a loss at Missouri when the Tigers made it their focus to physically challenge South Carolina's top player. A sprained ankle late against Auburn led her to miss a home loss to Tennessee in January. Vertigo kept her from the return game last month and the Gamecocks lost once more.
There were demoralizing defeats against the game's best, 83-58 to No. 1 UConn and a few days later, to then No. 2 Mississippi State 67-53, where Wilson was just 14-of-38 shooting in the two games.
Wilson's father, Roscoe Wilson Jr., said it's difficult for his daughter to handle when she believes she's letting down teammates. A'ja Wilson may have smiled broadly when using a scooter to get around on her bad ankle, but she was angry and frustrated about missing critical contests.
"It's who she is," Roscoe Wilson said. "She's all about helping her teams."
The struggles seemed to vanish earlier this month when Wilson, the conference tourney's MVP, led the Gamecocks to a 62-51 championship win over previously unbeaten Mississippi State for a fourth straight SEC Tournament title — a first for any league team. Wilson celebrated with exuberance, enjoying this crown perhaps more than the others.
"To never lose a game in the SEC Tournament is something rare. It's a blessing and an honor," she said. "For us to do what we did, especially with people doubting us, it's a great feeling."
Point guard Tyasha Harris said Wilson has given more of herself this season to help lead South Carolina's young lineup this year. Wilson has expanded her game on the court as well, bringing the ball up more after rebounds. She's also the leader in goofiness among teammates in locker rooms, bus rides, plane flights and postgame media sessions.
When giving out her Instragam address after the SEC Tournament championship game, a laughing Wilson made sure to note, "It's A-j-a, not A-s-i-a."
There are few fans of the women's game who don't know Wilson's accomplishments. Rick Laimbeer, general manager and coach of the relocated WNBA Las Vegas franchise , has attended Wilson's games armed with the No. 1 pick in next month's draft.
Wilson, who led the SEC in scoring (22.6 point average) and blocks (3.2 a game) and was third in rebounding (11.2 per game), is ready to stretch her wing span for the pros.
First, though, there's one last tournament to finish. Wilson understands the Gamecocks, in the same region as top-seeded UConn, won't get much back to toppled the undefeated, No. 1 Huskies.
"Everyone says you play UConn, it's a dead end," Wilson said. "But at the same time, it's not impossible."