In all likelihood, it won’t be the last game she ever plays on the floor of Colonial Life Arena. But for A’ja Wilson, Thursday evening’s matchup with LSU does mark an ending.
While South Carolina women’s basketball almost certainly will host two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in March, Thursday’s game against the Tigers will be Wilson’s final regular-season home game, and after four years and 130 appearances with the Gamecocks, she will be honored in a Senior Night ceremony that likely will have the hometown crowd — and Wilson herself — more than a little emotional.
“It’s bittersweet to me,” Wilson said Wednesday. “It’s a great moment to take in, just the four years that I’ve played here, and definitely filling up the Colonial Life Arena. But at the same time, I’m just a bucket of tears. I know they’re going to be coming.”
Granted, Senior Nights happen every year for USC, but coach Dawn Staley, Wilson and everyone acknowledges that this one will be a little different because of the impact Wilson has had on the program, her local celebrity and the relative lack of other seniors to share the spotlight (the injured Lindsey Spann will be honored, but she is a graduate transfer and has played only 15 games for the Gamecocks).
“It’s a great story,” Staley said of Wilson’s journey from local No. 1 recruit to All-American senior and national player of the year favorite. “You look at her life and her commitment to her hometown, the fact that she got it done. It doesn’t always end that way, with winning a national championship and going to the Final Four, and just the impact she’s had on this community. The reason why we’ve had so many fans is partly because of our success but (also because of) the people in our program. She definitely headlines as far as character. She’s a great character.”
Of course, for Staley, there’s no doubt that the success South Carolina has had, especially its national championship, wouldn’t have happened without Wilson’s prowess on the court.
“Statistically, you can just see, 2,000 points, over 1,000 rebounds, plus with what we were already able to accomplish with the players we had around her, I think it just set us up to be successful,” Staley said. “You need more than one player, but if you can have that player along with those other pieces, it makes life a lot easier.”
But while Wilson has undoubtedly been one of, if not the very best to ever play for the Gamecocks, Staley said a large part of her appeal is her constant accessibility to fans on and off the court — even if it was something that wasn’t always easy for her to do.
“There are some engagements that I couldn’t make, and the first person we asked is not a coach, but A’ja, and she’s always said yes,” Staley said. “And she’s always wooed the crowd and always been a great representative of our program. I just think she represents what you want in a student-athlete.
“There were times when we really had to talk about all that pressure ... of having to even just run out to the mall to pick up something, and you gotta talk to people, because people come up, they want to tell you their history, they want a part of her, they want a picture with her. ... It’s a lot on her, and she’s handled it well.”
On top of all that, however, Wilson was quick to point out that even after the Senior Night festivities, USC will still have to play No. 24 LSU, a team that has upset Tennessee, Missouri and Georgia this season. If the No. 8 Gamecocks are able to pull out a victory, they will secure a top-4 finish in the SEC and a double-bye in the conference tournament.
“It is a challenge, and LSU is a great team. They’ve played great this year. Coach Nikki (Fargas), she’s really changed that program around,” Wilson said. “So they’re going to be a tough opponent to play on Senior Night, but I’m excited. The team, I think we’re ready.”
Gamecock Fan Essentials
Who: No. 7 South Carolina (22-5, 11-3 SEC) vs. No. 24 LSU (18-7, 10-4 SEC)
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday (Senior Night ceremony starts at 6:10 p.m.)
Where: Colonial Life Arena
TV: SEC Network
South Carolina Starters: F A’ja Wilson, F Alexis Jennings, G Doniyah Cliney, G Bianca Jackson, G Tyasha Harris
LSU Starters: C Faustine Aifuwa, F Ayana Mitchell, G Jaelyn Richard-Harris, G Chloe Jackson, G Raigyne Louis