HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS BASKETBALL

Athlete of the Year: A’ja Wilson is next-level ready

Heathwood star and USC signee works hard on and off the court

ainelson@thestate.comJune 19, 2014 

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

  • FIVE OTHER GREAT GIRLS

    Kaydra Duckett

    Dreher’s guard/forward powered the Blue Devils to their second title in three seasons and was named 3A Player of the Year.

    Sydney Shull

    Dutch Fork’s senior point guard helped the Silver Foxes earn their third consecutive 4A state title.

    Lauren Stephenson

    Lexington golfer shot a 4-under 140 to medal and lead the Wildcats to a 4A girls title. Also helped boys’ team finish third in state.

    Arlicia Bush

    Ridge View’s sophomore sprinter zoomed to the 4A state championship in the 400 and anchored the Blazers’ 400 relay to gold and a new state record.

    Maigin Nieri

    Cardinal Newman swimmer picked up gold and silver medals at the SCISA swim finals.

    Akilah Imani Nelson

Three years later, after a whirlwind year that included a FIBA USA Women’s U19 gold medal, a SCISA girls basketball championship and a televised National Letter of Intent signing, Heathwood Hall’s A’ja Wilson is The State’s Female Athlete of the Year.

In 2011, Wilson already was a national phenomenon on the basketball court, a rising star with the Palmetto 76ers AAU squad and, as a sophomore, a team leader for the Highlanders’ hardwood squad.

Already 6-foot-2, Wilson was mulling a transition from three-sport star to dedicate her energy to becoming a top basketball recruit.

“I hated that I had to give up my other sports, but I knew my dream was to play college basketball, and I knew that would take a lot of sacrifice and that was one of the sacrifices I had to make,” said Wilson, who recently wrapped up her first week on campus at South Carolina.

Said her father Roscoe Wilson: “We knew that she had to focus on one sport if she was going to excel the way she wanted to.”

With her father helping her on the court, and her mother, Eva Wilson, helping her plot a course to academic excellence, A’ja Wilson pressed towards her goal.

“She really put in the work,” her father said, recalling late night practices and even later study sessions. “Everything we did was in the best interest of her academically, in her best interest athletically, and in the interest of her accomplishing (the championship) with her team.”

Though Wilson knew that the recruiting and college selection process was going to be intense, she never fathomed the frenzy that would develop as her high school career drew to a close.

She was the nation’s top girls basketball prospect for the 2014 class, and when her senior year began, Wilson had more than a dozen college scholarship offers to mull.

In her hometown of Hopkins, Sept. 3, 2013, was declared “A’ja Wilson Day.”

Later that year, fans at a South Carolina basketball game showed up with a poster-sized image of Wilson’s face.

Then came the accolades.

She was selected to the McDonald’s All-American game and named South Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year, Women’s Basketball Coaches’ Association Player of the Year and Naismith National High School Player of the Year.

In the midst of it all, Wilson was averaging 34.4 points, 13.9 rebounds and five blocks for the Highlanders. The included a single-game scoring record of 56 points at the CresCom Bank Holiday Invitational in December, and a buzzer-beating bucket to help lift the Highlanders over Northwood Academy in the state title game.

“Words cannot describe the feeling that I had when we won that championship,” she said. “We had been working at that for five years straight. I can’t describe that feeling.”

On April 15, Wilson picked South Carolina over North Carolina, Connecticut and Tennessee, announcing her choice on ESPN with much of her school and church family cheering her on in the background.

“It was an amazing experience, it was unbelievable just to hear them erupt with cheers when I said I was going to South Carolina,” she said.

But the biggest thrill this year for Wilson had nothing to do with basketball.

“Seeing my grandmother see me graduate was what I had looked forward to the most,” she said. “She’s been with me since day one, and she’s 92 and a lot of people don’t get that chance to have their grandmother be there.”

After graduating on June 6, Wilson started summer school at South Carolina three days later.

Though she has moved on, Wilson will never forget her high school career.

“I just have to thank the state of South Carolina, just everybody in the state, the community, for everything they have done for me,” Wilson said.

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