National championship an emotional journey for A'ja Wilson

National championship an emotional journey for A'ja Wilson

**Story by Jeff Owens/Photos by Jeff Owens and SC Media Relations**

DALLAS — As the seconds ticked off the clock at American Airlines Center Sunday night, A'ja Wilson sat on the Gamecock bench and cried. 

She covered her head with a towel and wiped tears of joy from her face as South Carolina closed in on its first national championship. When the final buzzer sounded and her teammates rushed onto the floor, Wilson couldn't join them. Instead, she collapsed to her knees and wept.

Gamecocks fans celebrate national championship in Dallas

Wilson, the Gamecocks' best player and the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, was not only thinking about what she had just accomplished, but she was thinking about her family and her grandmother, who passed away earlier this year.

"I really kind of dedicated this season to her," Wilson said about an hour after leading South Carolina to 67-55 victory over Mississippi State in the national championship game. "It was a very emotional time for me."

Wilson had just reached the pinnacle of her career. A two-time All-American and one of the best players in school history, she accomplished something no other Gamecock basketball player had ever done — leading her team to the national title. And she did it by helping her teammates through adversity after the loss of senior center Alaina Coates and other challenges throughout the season, and by them comforting and supporting her through some tough times as well. 

"My teammates really rallied around me, helped me become a better person, a great player," she said. "For us to face adversity like we did, for us to overcome it, the doubters we had, just shake them off, get this national championship, hanging up a banner, getting this ring, it really meant a lot to me.

"This team is just so special. I can't really put into words and explain to you how special this team really is, on and off the court. For us to really just see smiling faces, just positive vibes, it really set me into tears. I really couldn't hold them back."

This moment, of course, is the reason Wilson came to South Carolina. A native of nearby Hopkins, S.C., she chose to stay home and play for head coach Dawn Staley. 

Staley didn't promise her a national championship, but she did promise she would make her a great player. 

"Probably the only promise that I make is, I'm going to work with you, I'm going to do my best to try to make you a better person, then that will transition into making you a better player," Staley said. 

"Her parents did a great job of doing their due diligence, making sure that South Carolina was ready for her, on all levels, from an academic standpoint, from an athletic standpoint, from a social standpoint. Staying at home, there's a huge responsibility. It's taxing, because everybody knows her. Everybody wants to stop and have conversation with her. We knew that was going to take place."

Such pressure can be taxing on a young player. Wilson helped lead South Carolina to the Final Four in 2015, but the Gamecocks lost in the semi-finals. They lost last season in the Sweet 16. She entered this season as a preseason All-American, with the pressure mounting to get back to the Final Four. 

When she lost her grandmother, the pressure and emotions could have been overwhelming.

"When the tragedy like losing her grandmother occurred earlier this season, if she was anywhere else, she would have probably been transferring back to South Carolina," Staley said. "So I'm glad she chose to stay with us so we could share in that moment with her and help her mend a little bit."

Roscoe Wilson Jr. understands why his daughter was so emotional after the biggest game of her career. 

"She knows how much work she has put into this thing," he said as he watched her daughter celebrate a few feet away. "She has sacrificed so much to get to this point, and she realizes it now.

"I am so excited for my daughter, the team and the family. God has blessed us, God has blessed us with A'ja and as a family."

Wilson, who has led South Carolina all season, was at her best in the biggest game of the season, leading the Gamecocks with 23 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and two steals. She was huge down the stretch with two big blocks and basket after basket during crunch time. 

After Mississippi State erased South Carolina's 14-point lead and cut the deficit to four late in the fourth quarter, Wilson stepped up and willed her team to the finish. She scored six straight points late in the game, including two baskets after offensive rebounds. 

It was the kind of performance Gamecock fans have come to expect from Wilson, who had 13 points and a career-high 19 rebounds in the semi-final win over Stanford. 

"I just kind of knew I needed to make an impact on the game," Wilson said. "That's my biggest thing when I play, when I compete, is how can I make my impact. ... I have to make an impact, whether it's a block, a score, yelling, bringing energy. I have to make an impact one way."

Wilson's led South Carolina to the fourth national championship in school history and it's first in basketball. It also accomplished another goal for Staley, the former college and WNBA star who won a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics but had never won a college national championship despite reaching the Final Four four times. Thanks to Wilson and a team that mimicked her never-give-up attitude, she has now accomplished that goal.

"I really can't even put into words the feeling of how much it meant to win this game for Coach," Wilson said. "She's put in so much time, so much sweat, just voiced her voice into us, just prepping for times like this.

"It really means something special to kind of bring this back home, especially for such a great person like Coach Staley."