USC Women's Basketball

'A'ja the person' takes center stage as Wilson is presented with Naismith Trophy

A'ja Wilson bid farewell to South Carolina in style on Monday evening, accepting the Naismith Trophy for her final national player of the year award while several hundred fans cheered and chanted "NUM-BER ONE" outside of Colonial Life Arena.

But while Wilson was ostensibly being honored for her senior campaign in which she averaged 22.6 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game while leading USC to the Elite Eight, most of the talk from Wilson and those praising her — including university president Harris Pastides, athletics director Ray Tanner and coach Dawn Staley — was about the personal impact she has had on the local community and what it has meant for both sides.

Pastides opened the ceremony by saying he wanted to talk not about "A'ja the player but about A'ja the person."

"A'ja the person who never turned down an autograph, a selfie, a high five ... A'ja has never said no to anybody, and that is because she loves this community, she loves the fans," Pastides continued.

Tanner echoed those sentiments.

"The statistics, the double-doubles, the championships, all those things, we all know about that. But ... there's so much more to A'ja Wilson, and (parents) Eva and Roscoe, and family," Tanner said. "And the thing that resonates with me so much about A'ja is she was a real person. She was who she was all the time.

"Did she score her points? She did. Did she block a shot or two? She did. Did she get some rebounds? She did. Did she get some rings? She did. Did she sweep all the other trophies? She did that too. But she had fun. She influenced all of us. We came to see her, her smile, we came to see her influence her team."

For her part, Wilson gave credit to the fanbase for pushing her to her success, while also thanking her teammates, coaches and family.

"I can't put into words how thankful I am to be a part of such a great group of people and this fanbase," Wilson said in her acceptance speech. "Just thank you, thank you for everything. It may say A'ja Wilson on (the trophy), but this definitely goes out to all of you guys. I would not be the person, the player I am today without you guys."

But while Monday's event marked Wilson's last as an official member of South Carolina's program, Pastides half-jokingly remarked that "we are not letting her go."

"We'll let her go to New York for that (WNBA draft), we'll let her to go to the WNBA for those games," he conceded. "But anytime she can be back in Columbia, South Carolina, we're going to welcome her with open arms."

A permanent physical reminder of Wilson's status and legacy in the community may be coming soon as well — Staley called on fans to "flood President Pastides' email and at the same time CC Coach Tanner and let them know how much you want an A'ja Wilson statue outside Colonial Life Arena."

Afterward, Staley told reporters she was willing to pay the first $100,000 for the statue, while Wilson's father, Roscoe, pledged $14,000 from the back of the room, much to A'ja's bemusement.

If that statue is eventually erected, Tanner provided a fitting quote to go with it.

"We all know she's the greatest player in the country in women's basketball," he said. "We would also argue she's the greatest person to play women's basketball in the country."

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