David Cloninger

As a senior, A’ja Wilson wants to go back-to-back with young teammates

This was why she signed.

A’ja Wilson crouched by the bench, towel over her head, tears beginning to plummet as she realized her dream was coming true. The individual awards and conference titles were grand, the recognition as one of the country’s top players was nice.

The clock hit triple zeroes and South Carolina erupted, players hugging and leaping as the national championship trophy was presented. Wilson stayed by the seats, thanking God for blessing her with her talent and her late grandmother for watching her from above.

Then the player that made this possible when she chose USC over three of the country’s other power programs took her place on the podium, raising the trophy to the sky while the beaming smile she was known for nearly as much as her game again graced her face.

“It was just the emotion of the relief,” Wilson said. “I finally got to do something I dreamed of doing here.”

Nearly a month after Wilson scored eight points with three rebounds and two blocks in the final seven minutes to cement the Gamecocks’ first title, she was finally able to relax. Her last exam was completed that morning, her makeup work was done (even Final Four Most Outstanding Players don’t get breaks from the academic load), and she didn’t have any other trips for award ceremonies on the horizon.

The Hopkins native didn’t know what she’d do, outside of take advantage of the downtime. Last summer was the first time in a while she had taken a break from competitive basketball, preferring solo workouts and pickup games, and it resulted in another stellar individual season and three more championships – SEC regular season and tournament as well as the national title.

This year? Probably more of the same, although once coach Dawn Staley’s class of freshmen report, she’ll have a sit-down with each.

The message? This is a national championship team, with a trusted way of doing business. And if you have a problem, call me.

“My biggest thing is to help expand my leadership role as a captain,” Wilson said. “The standard that we uphold for ourselves. It’s hard to get to where we were last year, but it’s not impossible.”

There are goals in place. Only one team has won more than USC’s four consecutive SEC regular-season championships (Tennessee nabbed seven in a row from 1998-04). No team has won four consecutive SEC Tournaments (USC has the past three). Nobody’s won three consecutive SEC Player of the Year awards (Wilson could be the first).

Wilson holds the Gamecocks’ career record in blocks and needs 223 rebounds to place second, under Sheila Foster’s record 1,427. With another year like the last one, Wilson would pass Foster to claim USC’s career scoring record.

Then there’s the National Player of the Year prize some thought she deserved this year, but lost to NCAA career scoring champion Kelsey Plum. Wilson will enter 2017-18 as the favorite for the award, and it will be on her mind, just not as much as another errand.

“My biggest thing again is to win a national championship,” she said. “That would be great, to go back-to-back.”

The Gamecocks are restructuring after losing Alaina Coates, Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis to the WNBA, but it’s not as destitute as some may believe. Many have forgotten about Kentucky transfer Alexis Jennings, a 6-foot-2 forward who averaged 8.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in the Wildcats’ guard-based offense. She’ll get a chance to blossom alongside Wilson for a year, taking Coates’ place in the high-low duo.

Then there’s the freshman class, stocked with three Top-100 players. Of course USC would like to have Gray and Davis back after each played crucial roles in the title run, but at the end of the day, it’s a loss every team experiences.

“That’s the whole point of college – you graduate and move on. I think we’re gaining some things as well,” Wilson said. “I don’t think we fell off. We’re just going to need a little more time to get stuff in, because they’re very young.”

Her role as team leader will increase, but that’s something she’s honed since she arrived. Even as a freshman, the Gamecocks looked to the 6-5 forward.

“I think any time that you have the best player in the country in your backyard, I think it brings credibility,” Staley said at the Final Four. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get another No. 1 player in the country, if she were not from our area.”

Wilson’s planning to point USC’s eyes toward Columbus, Ohio, site of next year’s Final Four, as the country looks at her.

“It’s kind of hard to believe that I’m a senior now. I will not be returning to South Carolina year after next,” Wilson said. “I’m just trying to help my teammates get back to where we were.”

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