Sprinting downcourt, A’ja Wilson intercepted Canada’s pass and broke away to the basket. The crowd screamed as she made her 22nd point, not halfway through the third quarter.
Straight-faced, Dawn Staley nodded.
Wilson was playing on the U.S.’s under-18 national team in a tournament against teams from throughout the Americas. Staley was its head coach.
Staley, Wilson’s college coach-to-be, hasn’t seen South Carolina’s most-touted women’s basketball recruit play a game in Colonial Life Arena. But she spent two weeks more than 1,000 miles away getting to know her style.
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The two have practiced together in Columbia, but the tournament has given Staley an early chance to coach her in games, a “jump start,” she said, even before Wilson starts her fall classes. Eva Wilson, A’ja’s mom, calls it “divine intervention.”
The two won gold Sunday with a dominant, 104-74 win over Canada in the International Basketball Federation’s Americas championship. It capped a strong showing by Wilson, who was named the tournament’s MVP after amassing 95 points and 42 rebounds in five games.
Months before Wilson plays as a Gamecock, and months after she announced she’d be one, her relationship with Staley has grown and strengthened. Wilson now calls Staley her second mom — her “on-the-court mom.”
Over the last week, they’ve posted selfies from a bowling trip and from practice. They poke fun at each other on Twitter, and they send emojis back and forth.
“She has a little silly side,” Wilson said. “I make it come out.”
But courtside, Staley is all business. She stands calm, arms crossed, even when her players and fans scream and cheer.
Staley says the tournament has given her a chance to see how Wilson performs on different parts of the court, and it’s helped her identify weaknesses, like defensive play. Wilson says the higher-caliber competition has helped her get ready mentally for SEC play — to shake off slumps and avoid getting into foul trouble.
“She has to play at a high level every single day,” Staley said. “If you’re able to sustain that over a long period of time, you’re going to be pretty successful.”
And, Staley said, the tournament makes players who are used to being stars put their team first. They’re surrounded by other top-flight players, and they wear their country’s uniform.
Already, Wilson says her time with Staley is pushing her to the top of her game. In her games here, playing on the international stage, she put up numbers not unlike her time playing against private-school players in South Carolina.
She was the national team’s top scorer and its No. 2 rebounder. She twice posted double-doubles, including Sunday’s game against Canada, her best of the tournament. She scored 25 points and pulled down 11 rebounds despite struggles with fouls and scoring in the fourth quarter.
“The damage was done in the first 30 minutes,” Staley said.
She did so at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, on courts used by hundreds of Olympians. To make it to the games, Staley said, you have to pass through Colorado Springs first.
And she would know — Staley’s won Olympic gold three times.
Add in her other international success, her Hall of Fame induction and her success as a college coach, and she’s done what Wilson aspires to do, Eva Wilson said.
That, Eva Wilson said, has been key to their relationship. They’ve been able to talk about life outside of — and beyond — college basketball.
“She’s got a good start,” Staley said. “Hopefully USA Basketball is tracking her to be, ultimately, an Olympian.”
Sacrificing time to come to international tournaments — Wilson was on a similar team last year, too — is the first step to making a run at the Olympics, Staley said.
Still, she cautioned that the SEC will likely prove tougher than the competition here. The U.S. team routed its competition in each game: Sunday’s 40-point win was the team’s narrowest.
But Staley said she’s still pleased with the dominant shows Wilson put on — even as she stood straight-faced watching Wilson’s third-quarter breakaway layup.
“I thought she was gonna dunk it,” Staley said. “I hope she can throw that thing down in Colonial Life Arena next year.”