Before South Carolina women’s basketball tipped off against LSU on Thursday night, Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin declared Feb. 22, 2018, to be A’ja Wilson Day in honor of the All-American’s senior night.
Once the game started, Wilson put together a performance worthy of the holiday, and the No. 7 Gamecocks (23-5, 12-3 SEC) needed every bit of it to get past the No. 24 Tigers (18-8, 10-5 SEC) at Colonial Life Arena, 57-48.
“This day will definitely go down as one of the best days of my life,” Wilson said of the night. “Just to see my teammates all into it, the fans all into it, my parents being right there by my side, my brother, just having everyone around, a kid from Hopkins, (South Carolina) don’t really get that a lot. And to come here to South Carolina and really feel that love ... this has been a great day.”
It was a great day on the court as well, as Wilson finished with 27 points, passing Shannon Johnson for second on USC’s all-time scoring list, and 24 rebounds, a new career high. In doing so, she willed South Carolina to a crucial win that clinched the team a top-four finish in the SEC and a double-bye in the upcoming conference tournament.
It was also the first time since 1981 that a Gamecock has had 20 points and 20 rebounds in a game.
“Who wouldn’t want to go out well on their senior night?” Wilson said of her motivation entering the contest. “I was just really emotional at the beginning, but I knew I had to flip the switch, I knew I had to still lead my team.”
In the first five minutes of the game, it was quite literally all Wilson, as she scored USC’s first seven points and finished the first quarter with nine points and seven rebounds. Within 2:05 of the start of the second quarter, she had her 19th double-double of the season and 49th of her career.
It was not a start she saw coming.
“My first thought coming out was, ‘I hope my mascara’s not running,’ ” Wilson said. “I just took what the defense gave me, and no one was really boxing me out, so I just said, ‘Let me try to get extra possessions, let me try to get that basketball.’ ”
LSU struggled to shoot the ball all night, finishing with a 34 percentage on field goals. However, the Tigers were able to stay competitive thanks to 14 forced turnovers, which they converted into 22 points.
“We weren’t good today. It was bad today,” Staley said of her guards’ play. “Fortunately, we had A’ja Wilson today. We just didn’t have it. I didn’t see it coming, and I think we prepped knowing they were going to be doing exactly what they were doing. We just didn’t handle it well, and we definitely have to get better. ... We didn’t play confidently.”
All game long, whenever Wilson sat, the Gamecocks seemed flustered and unable to break LSU’s press defense, led by the guard combo of Chloe Jackson and Raigyne Louis. In the fourth quarter, LSU closed to within four, only for USC to go on a 11-4 run to create breathing room.
However, coach Nikki Fargas and her squad had no answer in the post for Wilson or the rest of South Carolina’s bigs, who combined to outrebound LSU 50-32 and outscore the Tigers in the paint 38-30.
Sophomore guard Tyasha Harris, who left the game in the first quarter with an ankle injury, returned with extra tape in the second and finished with four points, including one of South Carolina’s two 3-pointers of the night, and five assists.
South Carolina closes the regular season when it faces Tennessee on Sunday in Knoxville. Tipoff is scheduled for 4 p.m.
After missing USC’s last clash with Tennessee because of an injury, Wilson said she is hungry to finally face the Lady Vols. In the meantime, however, she said she would take at least a little time to savor Thursday night.
“I’m probably going to take it all in tonight, get some rest and then tomorrow hit the court, watch film, get with the team and turn the page,” she said.
LSU (18-8)—Mitchell 3-7 1-1 7, Aifuwa 1-7 0-2 2, Jackson 8-16 0-0 16, Louis 7-20 2-2 17, Richard-Harris 0-3 0-0 0, Farley 0-2 0-0 0, Bidikuindila 0-0 0-0 0, Cherry 0-2 0-0 0, Patterson 1-2 0-0 2, Pointer 2-8 0-0 4, Totals 22-67 3-5 48.
SOUTH CAROLINA (23-5)—Jennings 5-7 0-2 10, Wilson 11-21 5-7 27, Cliney 1-3 0-0 2, Harris 1-7 1-2 4, Jackson 2-9 3-4 8, Grissett 2-3 0-0 4, Herbert Harrigan 1-5 0-0 2, Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Patrick 0-2 0-0 0, Totals 23-57 9-15 57.
3-Point Goals—LSU 1-11 (Jackson 0-1, Louis 1-3, Richard-Harris 0-3, Cherry 0-1, Patterson 0-1, Pointer 0-2), South Carolina 2-10 (Harris 1-4, Jackson 1-3, Herbert Harrigan 0-1, Patrick 0-2). Assists—LSU 8 (Louis 3), South Carolina 15 (Harris 5). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—LSU 32 (Louis 8), South Carolina 50 (Wilson 24). Total Fouls—LSU 16, South Carolina 10. Technical Fouls—None. A—12,835.