For four years, A'ja Wilson has been the sun to the South Carolina basketball program orbiting around her. Dawn Staley, a masterful and determined basketball force, probably would have found her way to the top of the profession whether or not she convinced Wilson to stay home and define her program, but thanks to the these last four years, no one will ever ask if It Will Happen for the Gamecocks. After two Final Fours, including one national championship title, South Carolina has become the most popular team in the country by attendance and the nerve center of the basketball world. Staley is the USA Basketball head coach now, and national team camps are held on the South Carolina campus. It has happened. And Wilson made it happen.
“There are players that become program changers,” Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said Monday night, after his Huskies ended Wilson's college career. Once upon a time, Auriemma had been a finalist for the services of Wilson, the top recruit in her class, before Wilson elected to stay home.
“I remember when we got Rebecca Lobo," Auriemma continued. "It kind of changed the perception of our program and it changed where we were able to go and who else we were able to get. So sometimes it just takes one player. Especially if it's a local player like A'ja was. So she obviously made the right decision and their basketball program has gone from being good to being great to getting the kind of crowds that they get and to winning a national championship and a couple Final Fours.”
Staley and Wilson aren't finished working together—expect Wilson to be a fixture on those USA Basketball teams for years to come, after she gets selected with the top pick in this year's WNBA draft.
But first Wilson continued making her mark on college basketball this past weekend. Facing the feisty Buffalo Bulls, an eleven seed out of the MAC, on Saturday, Wilson arose with her teammates for a 5:20 AM shootaround that morning—“Imagine when that means we had to get up,” Wilson noted—and started promptly at the 11:30 AM tipoff.
Her teammates orbited her in the literal sense, as well, Wilson the rim protector standing centered in front of the basket on the defensive end, her eyes always on the action, her 6'5'' frame ready to take off in whichever direction necessary for the Gamecocks on any possession.
She is all things on offense, in part to take advantage of her remarkably broad base of skills. She shot 54.2 percent from two this year, 41.7 percent from three, despite facing double teams and lacking a consistent point guard to find her in her preferred spots on the court. Put another way: She was everything to this South Carolina team because that's what they needed.
Even still, South Carolina kept the vastly undersized Buffalo team in the game, turning the ball over 26 times, and only led 55-50 early in the fourth with Wilson getting a breather on the bench.
"Sometimes it just takes one player."
Her first possession back off the bench, Wilson dribble-drove, kicked to an open teammate. But she elected not to shoot it. No matter. Wilson established herself down low, took the entry pass, scored through two Bulls, drew the foul. Two possessions, took the ball in the high post, fed her partner Alexis Jennings, who finished at the rim. No big deal, just a 6'5" point guard. Wilson calmly adjusted her ponytail, blocked a shot at the other end, took possession in the high post, and did it again.
Her season wasn't going to end, not against Buffalo, not without one more shot at UConn. She was the screener for a Ty Harris drive. And with less than two minutes left, she stepped into the path of an entry pass for a steal at one end, patiently waited to be fed by Harris for an elegant finish at the hoop to put it away.
But doing it all took its toll, and Wilson grew frustrated with herself, which led to uncharacteristic mistakes, including eight turnovers.
“This whole tournament I've really been inside my head a lot,” Wilson said Saturday. “We were just talking about it on the way here; I feel like I'm defending myself and I'm blocking shots of my own, and that's really not good. It's going to come. It's going to click. Yes, there were times in the game I was very frustrated at my game, I was very frustrated and I felt like I wasn't contributing to my team the way I should, and I can't stand that feeling. I hate it.”
Staley, too, understood the stakes—that Wilson needed to be her absolute best, and to get help, for the Gamecocks to finally beat Connecticut.
“You know, she's by far the best player in the country and she has to get back to feeling the best, and not invincible, but surely, taking a glimpse down at the 'S' on her chest because she's been Superwoman for us, and not playing her best basketball,” Staley said. “I'm hoping sooner or later, Monday night, she gets back to playing like A'ja Wilson.”
Staley's wish was granted, but it wasn't nearly enough.
From the opening tip, Wilson seemed entirely aware she would need to do it all. A bit too aggressive, she fouled Huskies forward Napheesa Collier on the game's first possession. She knew the catastrophe a second foul would mean for the team, and it took the edge off her defense. It didn't help that her teammates weren't rotating on defensive closeouts, so it fell to the rim protector Wilson to also get a hand up, just too late, out on a Katie Lou Samuelson three.
These are the limits of even the nation's greatest player against the team game Connecticut plays. On one end, Wilson denied Samuelson a clean look; at the other, she split a double team and finished elegantly at the rim, drew the foul, completed the three-point play. But in an instant, the Huskies whipped passes around, found Crystal Dangerfield, who hit an utterly uncontested three.
Offense came from everywhere for Connecticut, while the inexperienced guards of South Carolina eventually gave way to Wilson, as well, who turned the offense into a series of high-low actions with Jennings, a motion offense reduced to, essentially, a straight line.
And still: Connecticut couldn't stop her. Twenty-seven points on 11-of-18 shooting, a force until that final curtain call with just over two minutes left in the game, getting a standing ovation from the South Carolina fans, the Connecticut fans, even Debbie Antonelli, showing her respect as she called the game on Westwood One Radio coast to coast.
A'ja Wilson was and is South Carolina, and did her grieving for the loss immediately, in public view, sobbing into a towel as the final seconds ticked down, getting hugs from Staley and Auriemma alike.
By the postgame presser, she'd found her composure again, once more managing to grow faster than anyone had the right to expect, putting her collegiate experience in perspective.
“I think that's what makes it a lot of fun is it's been a journey,” Wilson said. “I've been through the ups and downs of everything. 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. There's a bunch of girls out there that dream to do that, and I was part of it with a South Carolina team that no one believed we could do any of it, at all. We were the underdogs. So just to be part of something and show people that it can be done, it's been a blessing.”
But Lobo, the A'ja Wilson of the Connecticut program back in 1995, pointed out that it's impossible for Wilson to know just yet how her life has been altered forever, even if she doesn't earn another accolade in a basketball career that, indeed, seems to promise so many of them.
“A'ja probably doesn't realize yet how that has changed her life. She's only one year away from it, so she knows how it's changed the last year for her, the national championship, she's the player from her home state who helped them get their first one,” Lobo said Monday night. “But A'ja, 20 years from now, will still be remembered by everybody from South Carolina, no matter what she does from this point on. Olympics, WNBA championships, she will be remembered in the hearts of the fans of South Carolina as the player who led them to their first national championship. She won't understand that until all that time has passed, but it has been a life-changing thing for her.”
And what of Staley's South Carolina project? Asked where the Gamecocks would be had Wilson picked another school, Staley said it's like asking “where UConn would be without Diana Taurasi.” ESPN commentator Kara Lawson called her “one of the few players who have changed a program.”
“It's hard to project where they'd be, but they certainly wouldn't be where they are right now," Lawson said. "She's been one of the few players who have changed a program. If it is the end of her career tonight, I hope women's basketball fans celebrate one of the great players in the history of the game.”
Staley and the Gamecocks will almost certainly have more success moving forward. Elite recruits are the norm now: Destanni Henderson, ESPN's top-rated point guard in the 2018 class, is headed to South Carolina this fall, while the Gamecocks are on the final list of the two highest-rated forwards in the Class of 2019.
And yet, no matter how many national titles South Carolina wins, A'ja Wilson, the woman who stayed, will be the north star.
“She's left a pretty impressive legacy at South Carolina,” Auriemma said. “So wherever the program goes from here on in, they will always refer back to her and what she did.”
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.