It was a joke, a silly comment in preseason practice that media and South Carolina players and coaches giggled over. Sure, A’ja Wilson would win SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Yeah, right.
It was funny because Wilson was expected to be a leading contender for SEC Player of the Year. She’s lived up to that, ranking fifth in the SEC in scoring and doing enough in the other categories to have her as one of the top-five players in the league, if not the country.
After the Gamecocks’ comeback win at No. 9 Kentucky, Wilson leads the SEC with 3.1 blocks per game. She’s tied for second in rebounds (with USC’s Alaina Coates) with 9.4 per game. As much as the 6-foot-5 sophomore was pegged as a post player, she’s always been a guard trapped in a large body – but her paint presence, swatting eight Wildcat shots the other night, has her as one of the most formidable and flexible players in the nation.
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She wouldn’t bite if her innocuous comment has become a goal. Not that she needed to.
Plenty of others are saying it for her.
“She’s a player,” USC coach Dawn Staley said. “I don’t think you really want to just pigeonhole her into just being this or that. She’s a player that can play a lot of different ways.”
Wilson scored, rebounded, blocked, assisted, stole and did everything but fly the plane home as the Gamecocks finished a rare successful trip to the Bluegrass. She’s looking to sustain it against No. 15 Texas A&M on Sunday.
The Aggies (13-4, 3-1 SEC) have their own 6-foot-5 center in Khaalia Hillsman, and will try to attack the Gamecocks’ post. Wilson was camped in the middle against the smaller, speedier Wildcats, but the Aggies can play inside and out, the two Courtneys (Walker and Williams) handling A&M’s scoring for what seems the 18th consecutive year.
Wilson will start and really be considered a forward as Coates will be at center, but they’ll rotate. The success at Kentucky will likely have Wilson playing more in the paint.
If SEC Defensive Player of the Year truly is a goal, it has a chance to continue becoming reality.
“It’s just a mindset, really,” Wilson said. “Just trying to protect the basket the best way I can.”
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NO. 15 TEXAS A&M (13-4, 3-1 SEC) at NO. 2 SOUTH CAROLINA (16-0, 4-0)
When: 1:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
Tickets: Available at the box office
Texas A&M’s probable starters: G Courtney Walker 5-8 Sr. (17.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg); G Curtyce Knox 5-7 Jr. (1.3 ppg, 0.5 rpg); F/G Courtney Williams 6-1 Sr. (13.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg); F Anriel Howard 5-11 Fr. (4.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg); C Khaalia Hillsman 6-5 So. (7.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
South Carolina’s probable starters: G Khadijah Sessions 5-8 Sr. (6.1 ppg, 2.6 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell 5-9 Sr. (14.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg); G Asia Dozier 6-0 Sr. (3.8 ppg, 1.1 rpg); F A’ja Wilson 6-5 So. (16.4 ppg, 9.4 rpg); C Alaina Coates 6-4 Jr. (12.7 ppg, 9.4 rpg)
Next game: USC tips off at Auburn at 7 p.m. on Thursday.