High School Sports

April 16, 2014

For A’ja Wilson, ‘No place like home’

After all of the phone calls, text messages, Tweets, visits and pleas, it came down to feeling at home.

After all of the phone calls, text messages, Tweets, visits and pleas, it came down to feeling at home.

There was no better place to feel at home, than right at home.

Top national prospect A’ja Wilson, wooed by every basketball team in the country during her final two years at Heathwood Hall, decided on Wednesday that the best place for her to spend the next four years was not seven states away or within a four-hour drive. It was at South Carolina, less than a half-hour from her Hopkins home, where she’ll join a recruiting class brimming with talent and a team that already has plenty of it.

“I will be attending the University of South Carolina,” she said live on ESPNU, as the crowd behind her exploded into applause.

True to the way she handled the hectic final year of her recruitment, Wilson didn’t have an elaborate production for her decision. Once ESPNU asked for her final answer, she didn’t pull out a cap or reveal a new jersey.

She flashed the same megawatt smile that has become as big as her game over the past four years and simply said where she was going. Then, just before donning a T-shirt with the same phrase, she said, “There’s just no place like home, there really isn’t. Coach (Dawn) Staley’s really starting on something great and I would love to be a part of it.”

Staley received the call 20 minutes before the announcement. When Wilson spoke in a somber, low tone, Staley was crushed.

“ ‘The reason why I’m calling,’ ” Staley relayed. “Then she paused – ‘Is because I’m coming to play for you this fall.’ I know our office was louder than Heathwood Hall today. I know it.”

The Gamecocks won over national champion UConn, SEC stalwart Tennessee and North Carolina. The Tar Heels knocked USC out of the NCAA tournament this year, an instance that Wilson hopes to somewhat rectify by making sure it doesn’t happen again.

She could get the chance – Staley routinely has scheduled North Carolina for a neutral-court date at Myrtle Beach. Until then, Wilson will report to USC with the rest of a major recruiting haul – she’s the third McDonald’s All-American in a five-woman class, which rose to a national No. 2 ranking after she committed – and start dealing with other expectations.

With every heavy contributor returning from last year’s team, plus the new class, the Gamecocks will enter the season as a Final Four pick. Wilson, who can play high, play low and totes a bag overflowing with individual awards to campus with her, will be expected to be one of the players who gets USC there.

That’s no problem, Wilson says. She’s dealt with having a target on her throughout high school. It didn’t end with her overpowering foes in the SCISA ranks, either – she had to prove it among the nation’s best at all-star games, and among the world’s best with Team USA.

“You just have to take it in stride,” Wilson said. “A lot of expectations come with a great team, and I’m pretty sure we know that’s coming.”

“We feel like we have checked off getting more talent into the fold, with the experienced players that are returning,” Staley said. “We’re not going to make any promises, but everybody wants to play for a national championship, and I don’t see why our goals and dreams can’t be to win a national championship.”

Wilson will join close pals Jatarie White and Kaydra Duckett as USC freshmen next year, and reunite with former AAU teammates India Farmer and Alaina Coates. She’ll also get a chance to see the other finalists on the other sideline – Staley has scheduled a home-and-home series with UConn beginning next year and the Gamecocks are SEC brethren with the Lady Volunteers, besides the potential UNC date.

Wilson said that, of the four finalists, she didn’t know which one to pick until a night before. All were neck-and-neck, but as she thought about it, she really admired how Staley had built a program from, basically, nothing.

“Last night, my dad was on the couch and said, ‘All right, let’s just talk about it,’” Wilson said. “Because we were kind of avoiding the question, acting like April 16 wasn’t the next day.”

“It’s all about where A’ja fits in, where she feels comfortable,” said her mother, Eva Wilson. “It was, definitely, her choice, and she had to feel it.”

At the end, she decided she wanted to be part of a burgeoning national power. The Gamecocks went 29-5 last season and won the SEC regular-season championship, and didn’t lose a significant player.

She didn’t pause in addressing her mission, either.

“My goal is to win a national championship,” she said. “I think we can accomplish that goal.”

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