After winning its first NCAA championship, the South Carolina Gamecocks were under pressure to stage a repeat in the 2017-18 season. There was much speculation about whether the reigning champions would have the personnel to make it back to the national stage with the departure of standouts Alaina Coates, Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis to the WNBA.
In their doubt of South Carolina, the naysayers forgot about one crucial element to that 2017 championship team: A’ja Wilson.
The 2018 AP Player of the Year ended last season with several awards and recognition including SEC Player of the Year, All-SEC First Team and All-American First Team placements. The then-junior led her team in scoring with 17.9 points per game and blocks with 90 on the season, proving herself a threat on both ends of the floor.
Wilson posted a double-double in the 2017 championship game, with 23 points and 10 rebounds, while swatting 4 blocks. Although her team’s road back to the championship was cut short with an Elite Eight loss to top-seeded UConn, Wilson’s play throughout the season was nothing short of dominant averaging 22.6 points and 11.8 rebounds.
South Carolina and Wilson experienced a few bumps in the road before earning an SEC title, including a harrowing loss to unranked SEC opponent Missouri. In a championship rematch, they struggled against Mississippi State, losing by 14. Wilson dealt with struggles off the court as well, having to overcome a bout of vertigo and dealing with a learning disability, as she wrote in The Player’s Tribune.
Known for her can-do personality, Wilson was instrumental in her team’s turnaround and its subsequent conference title, leading her team both on and off the court. Head coach Dawn Staley raves about the 6-5 forward, calling her the team’s ‘Superwoman.’
“She's done so much for our program, our state, our university, and all the little girls that grow up looking like her; she was a poster child for inspiration and a beacon of hope,” Staley said in a press conference following South Carolina’s Elite Eight loss.
“A'ja was an integral part of taking our program to the next level. I'm just really fortunate that I got a chance to coach her for four years, and knock-on-wood, for very few injuries.”
Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw is The Associated Press women's college basketball coach of the year https://t.co/dNGdLBJKUF; @GamecockWBB's A'ja Wilson is player of the year. https://t.co/3Fnn6s4TrM pic.twitter.com/sJPRkFuAme— AP Top 25 (@AP_Top25) March 29, 2018
Wilson was also awarded the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s Wade Trophy, given to the best player in the nation, as well as two other player of the year awards from USA TODAY and espnW. She is the first player in South Carolina women’s basketball history to be named the AP Player of the Year and was named to the AP’s All-American first team for the third time — the seventh player ever to do so.
Although her college career came to an early end, Wilson has made a lasting impact on the college basketball world, and it on her.
“I have had a great four years. I wouldn't change anything. Coming to South Carolina was the best decision I've made at a young age,” she said.
“I think that's what makes it a lot of fun is it's been a journey. I've had a blessing to just compete in the NCAA, and make it to the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 and two Final Fours and National Champions. So just to be part of something and show people that it can be done, it's been a blessing.”