USC Women's Basketball

Gamecocks star carrying a big load into NCAA Tournament

When Dawn Staley explained to a reporter that her junior star A’ja Wilson was too young to enter the WNBA Draft even if she wanted to, Wilson took the opportunity to show off her sense of humor.

“Yeah, one more year,” she said walking off with slumped shoulders and a mockingly glum face. “See y’all next year.”

For the last three years, South Carolina fans have come to know and love Wilson’s big personality. For the next three weeks, the Gamecocks will need her “big” game.

Literally, her “big” game.

With four-time All-SEC selection Alaina Coates out for the season with an ankle injury, Wilson will have to carry even more of the load if South Carolina is going to move on to the Final Four in Dallas and make an impact when it gets there. The Gamecocks game plan still will involve “pounding it inside,” Wilson predicted.

“It’s really nothing different than we’ve done in the past, it’s just that instead of two posts we might go one post,” she said.

That one post would be the 6-foot-5 Wilson, who is averaging 17.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game this season (19.5, 8.3 and 3.5 against ranked opponents) and Friday was named one of four finalists for the Naismith Trophy, which is given to the nation’s most outstanding women’s player.

Wilson doesn’t feel any extra pressure now that she’s the team’s only experienced option in the post during the season’s most important stretch. The top-seeded Gamecocks (28-4) take on eighth-seeded Arizona State (19-12) in the Stockton Regional’s second round today at Colonial Life Arena at 7 p.m.

“It could be, but I definitely don’t feel it. My teammates help me not feel it because they are holding up their side of the …,” she said, searching for the right word.

“Bargain,” interjected guard Kaela Davis, who was sitting to Davis’ right.

Staley also is trying to keep the “Wilson Against the World” talk to a minimum.

“I don’t like adding more pressure to situations,” Staley said. “We devise a plan in which we put her in her comfort spots where she doesn’t have to think, she just plays off what she naturally does.”

Wilson had 18 points (on 7-of-11 shooting), five rebounds and one block in South Carolina’s 90-40 opening round win over No. 16 seed UNC Asheville.

“She’s the best post player in the nation,” UNC Asheville coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick said. “She’s going to make some spectacular moves. The thing that makes her difficult to guard is she’s got a little bit of a face up game, she’s got a turnaround jumper, she’s got back-to-the-basket moves, she runs the floor. Need I go on?”

Wilson is safely out of reach of the WNBA because the league mandates players be at least 22 years old in the calendar year of the draft to be eligible, and Wilson turns 21 this August. She was born in 1996, the same year the WNBA was formed. Leaving early has yet to become a trend for women’s basketball players, although there is some momentum moving in that direction.

UConn’s Morgan Tuck and Michigan State’s Aerial Powers did it last year. Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd and Minnesota’s Amanda Zahui B did it the year before. The WNBA sets non-negotiable three-year deals for its first four picks with an annual salary of just above $50,000.

Despite the damage it might do to Staley’s team, she’d like to see a day when the professional game in the United States is even more of a draw for female collegiate players.

“I think it would be a good thing overall for women’s basketball because for 20 years now we have an outlet for our players to play here in the United States. The more prevalent you make it, the more dreams can come true for little girls,” she said. “Our game is a lot better because we’ve had the WNBA. Dreams are being realized and the game is a lot better because little girls are getting exposed to basketball at a really high level.”

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