Aja Wilson finds a new way to lead Gamecocks in Final Four win

Aja Wilson finds a new way to lead Gamecocks in Final Four win

**Story by Jeff Owens/Photo by SC Media Relations**

DALLAS — A'ja Wilson has accomplished just about everything a player can in college basketball. 

She's a two-time All-American. The two-time SEC Player of the year. And she's led South Carolina to three straight regular-season SEC championships and three straight SEC tournament championships. 

SC rallies to beat Stanford in semi-finals

She even helped the Gamecocks reach the Final Four as a freshman in 2015. 

But the one thing Wilson has never done is play for a national championship. She will do that Sunday night after leading the Gamecocks to a 62-53 victory over Stanford in the national semi-finals Friday. 

South Carolina, who has become a national power under legendary coach Dawn Staley, will play for the national championship for the first time in school history, facing Mississippi State in an all-SEC final. 

"I can't even put into words the feeling that I have right now," Wilson said after the game Friday night. "This is a very special team. I feel like we've earned this spot that we're in now. 

"We know that we're not done. But just the feeling of just making history at your school is just something really special. Especially with the game of women's basketball, we're kind of putting South Carolina on the map right now. It's just a great feeling for us."

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Wilson, a finalist for national player of the year, led South Carolina in uncharacteristic fashion against Stanford. She averaged 17.9 points per game during the regular season and 19.7 on 59 percent shooting during the postseason. 

But against a smothering Stanford defense, she struggled offensively Friday night. She scored just four points in the first half and made just 5 of 11 shots from the field and only 3 of 8 from the foul line. 

But she matched a career-high with 19 rebounds, 11 in the second half, and led a spectacular defensive effort in the second half, blocking three shots and grabbing two steals.  

Wilson admits she was frustrated in the first half when she could not get the ball and was double- and triple-teamed when she did. 

"It was very frustrating. It was very tough to remain tough," she said. "But it was something I've seen before in the SEC. Playing in the SEC, I see that kind of every night. It was just a matter of this time, it was kind of frustrating because I felt like I wasn't really in the play offensively."

But Wilson persevered, as the best players do. 

"I mean, I just kind of remained me," she said.  "My teammates really rallied around me, kept positive thoughts into my mind. Coach Staley kept positive thoughts into my mind. I think that kind of helped me overcome." 

With the Stanford defense denying her the ball, Wilson began to crash the boards in the second half and finding her teammates — she also had four assists. And when she did get the ball, she found a way to score, either on offensive rebounds and putbacks or slick moves around defenders in the low post.  

"It's very tough when you have kind of three people around you. You see that your teammate is open, but you really just can't get it there the way that you want it," she said. 

"I kind of let the game come to me, honestly. I try to get every loose ball without fouling. I find a way for us to get the possession. I think that really kind of gave me the momentum to say, 'Okay, we're going to be okay, just kind of push through.'"

Wilson's dominance on the boards was crucial for South Carolina, which was out-rebounded in the first half. In the second half, Stanford could not keep her from grabbing seemingly every big rebound. 

"She found a way to impact the game other ways. Getting in there and rebounding the basketball," Staley said. "If we don't have her contributions on the boards, we're not playing on Sunday night."

"I want to make an impact on my team any way I can," Wilson said. "Tonight obviously was kind of rebounding. I could have shocked myself with that (laughter).

"But it goes to show you got to find a different way that you can impact your team. I think rebounding kind of stuck out to me. I just tried to get every ball that I could."

Staley has seen Wilson deliver such performances before, particularly in big conference games in the SEC. 

"She's come a long way as far as handling physicality," Staley said. "We know that teams are going to, you know, wall up and smother her. I didn't think she handled the double-teams and triple-teams well tonight.

"But really proud of how she stuck in there, hung in there, not get down on herself." 

Wilson has been at her best during the postseason, leading South Carolina after it lost senior center and All-SEC player Alaina Coates to an ankle injury. She put together a huge fourth quarter against Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament final, and she did it in a different way against Stanford. 

"I think with A'ja, knowing she didn't have her partner in crime for the remainder of the season, I think she kind of exhaled a little bit. She figured out ways in which she can still impact the game," Staley said. 

"She's taken the approach of, you know, keep it moving forward, let's do it for Alaina (Coates). She's not able to help us out physically, so let's make sure we give her every opportunity to get another ring, because Alaina Coates likes rings. She wears all her rings all the time on every finger. We want to add one more to the collection (smiling)."

Thanks to Wilson and a big second-half comeback, South Carolina now has that chance. 

"I think we're blessed and we're really honored to be in this situation," Wilson said. 

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