One last hurrah

South Carolina, Wilson prep for star's final game at home


COLUMBIA - A'ja Wilson's had the pomp and pageantry. All she wants out of this last home game is the win.

South Carolina's all-time leading scorer, the three-time Southeastern Conference player of the year and perhaps the program's most transformational player is suiting up for the last time at home when the second-seeded Gamecocks (27-6) play No. 10 seed Virginia (19-13) on Sunday for a spot in the round of 16 in the women's NCAA Tournament's Albany Regional.

"I'm going to miss this place like crazy," Wilson said Saturday. "But the biggest thing is to get the win and work from there."

Wilson has helped get many, many wins at the Colonial Life Arena the past four seasons. The Gamecocks have gone 61-4 at home with her on the roster. The program honored Wilson last month on senior night, an emotion-filled send off in front of 12,835 fans in a victory over LSU on Feb. 22 where the grateful senior had 27 points and 24 rebounds.

"I don't run out of words talking about A'ja Wilson just because who she is as a person, the decorated career she's had for our program," Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said. "I hope I get the chance to coach another A'ja Wilson is my coaching life."

Staley will most likely have a determined and focused Wilson in the lineup against Virginia.

Wilson had 19 points and 16 rebounds in South Carolina's closer-than-expected, 63-52 win over 15th-seeded North Carolina A&T on Friday night. Wilson was just 6 of 15 from the floor and committed a team-high five turnovers as the Aggies cut a 20-point lead down to seven points in the fourth quarter.

Wilson was bothered by her subpar play and vowed not to let it happen again.

"This is a whole different ball of wax," Wilson said. "This is win or go home and I'm not trying to go home."

While South Carolina is seeking its fifth straight trip to the Sweet 16, Virginia has not gotten there since 2000. The Cavaliers had not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2010 and had not won a tourney game before Friday's 68-62 win over seventh-seeded Cal in nine years.

Something Virginia has that most of South Carolina's opponents do not is a low-post player able to work the 6-foot-5 Wilson one-on-one in 6-9 sophomore Felicia Aiyeotan. Aiyeotan had 16 points, six rebounds and two blocks in the Cal win.

"When she goes in and she's confident, Fe can really change the feel of a game," Virginia coach Joanne Boyle said.

Boyle said Wilson's skillset is so advanced the Cavaliers will need more than just Aiyeotan to hold her off.

Staley believes the Gamecocks are well versed in players like Aiyeotan having to go against Mississippi State's 6-7 all-SEC forward in Tiera McCowan the past few seasons. "It's good to have played against an imposing presence like that," Staley said. "We'll just pretty much play her like we play Big T. Hopefully, that will work."

One thing that won't is Virginia falling down in awe in facing Staley, the one-time Virginia superstar who led the Cavaliers to three Final Fours from 1989-92. The players weren't born during Staley's stellar college days and they're locked into beating her Sunday night.

"We all have a sense of her legacy," Virginia guard Aliyah Huland El said. "But this is a game for us."

A game where South Carolina's Wilson will have one last chance to shine.

"My senior night was great, but at the same time, it was a game in the SEC," Wilson said. "This is different. This is the NCAA and I'm going to be able to flip the switch if the switch is even flipped."