At the beginning of the fourth quarter Sunday afternoon, it seemed as though we had seen the last of A’ja Wilson. With South Carolina women’s basketball up 23 over struggling Kentucky, there didn’t appear to be much need for Gamecocks’ star player, who had played just 23 minutes to that point.
But with 7:22 left to play, USC coach Dawn Staley had Wilson check back in for three minutes. Not much happened in that time — the senior All-American swiped a steal and dished an assist — but her presence on the floor was enough to conjur up memories of another fourth quarter on Jan. 11 against Auburn.
With just under three minutes to play, the Gamecocks led the Tigers by 12 points. A USC turnover led to a stoppage in play, but Wilson, having already played 33 minutes, remained in the game. With just over a minute to go, Staley called a timeout, and still Wilson remained in the game.
Then, with nine seconds left, Wilson leaped for a rebound and came down on an Auburn player’s foot. She sprained her ankle, and missed the next two games.
And the contests against Kentucky and Auburn have not been the only times Wilson has remained on the floor deep into a game when the outcome seems certain.
Against UConn, with the Gamecocks down by 30 midway through the fourth quarter, Wilson stayed in for the majority of the period. Against Arkansas, with USC leading by 39 to start the fourth quarter, Wilson played four and a half minutes. Against Alabama, with South Carolina winning by as much as 19 in the final quarter, Wilson played nine.
By contrast, Wilson sat for the final five minutes of South Carolina’s win over Georgia. When she left, the Gamecocks were up 14, and they finished with a 12-point margin of victory.
Saying Wilson makes South Carolina a dramatically better team is an understatement — she averages nearly the same amount as the Gamecocks’ next two best scorers combined, and she consistently draws double and triple teams in the paint, giving perimeter players open looks.
But given the current structure of USC’s roster, Staley has often decided that it’s worth it to leave her star player on the floor after the outcome of the game seems settled, even with the risk of injury.
On Sunday, Staley gave some insight into her decision-making process. With just nine healthy players left on the team, and with three of them being freshmen, Staley said she is wary of asking younger players to take on even more minutes and responsibility.
“I don’t think we can lean on them more than we have, because then they’ll start feeling the pressure and they’ll play less than what they’ve been giving us,” Staley said of the team’s freshmen.
And one of those freshmen, forward LaDazhia Williams, has taken more time to adjust to the college game, in part due to injury, which has resulted in limited minutes as Staley tries to ease her back into things, though that could be changing soon, she hinted Sunday.
“LaDazhia’s been getting better,” Staley said Sunday. “It’s unfortunate that she’s caught up in the numbers with our post play, but she’s been getting better. She’s been practicing better, we just gotta find time to get her out there on the floor, but the other players have been playing all year long.”
Williams eventually replaced Wilson in Sunday’s Kentucky game.
Staley also said there’s a strategic value in testing her players’ conditioning and mental toughness as South Carolina prepares for the postseason.
“We’re making the most out of having a short bench. ... We’re actually scrimmaging a lot more than we have because we need our players that are going to play to feel that fatigue in preparation,” Staley said.
South Carolina hosts LSU for Senior Night on Thursday at 6:30 p.m.