Christopher DeVargas / Hair and makeup by Zee Clemente
Thursday, March 21, 2019 | 2 a.m.
March Madness is hard. Leading a team to the Final Four is hard. Winning a national championship is hard.
Those were the lessons A’ja Wilson learned two years ago when she guided South Carolina to the only national title in the program’s history. Wilson, then a junior center, averaged 19.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game in the tournament and scored 23 points in the final to power the Gamecocks past SEC rival Mississippi State.
Wilson went on to become the top overall pick in the 2017 WNBA Draft and face of the Las Vegas Aces. She earned the league’s Rookie of the Year award this past season with averages of 20.7 points and eight rebounds per game.
Wilson might now be a superstar in the pros, but this time of year—the NCAA Women’s Tournament tips off March 22—will always elicit strong memories about what she accomplished in her college career. Here are Wilson’s most vivid reflections from the NCAA Tournament.
A week before the start of the NCAA tournament, South Carolina lost Wilson’s season-long sidekick, forward Alaina Coates, to injury. With her running mate out for the tourney, Wilson said she had no inkling her team was about to transform into a juggernaut: “I knew we had great talent, but I definitely could not imagine us being national champions that year. I just didn’t get that vibe. But as the tournament went on, we faced adversity.
“When Alaina went down, it was tough. I was like, ‘We might not be looking too good.’ But we grew together and pushed through. We kept saying, ‘We’re all we need.’ We grew around that, and we ended up winning it all.”
South Carolina’s biggest challenge came in the second round, when a talented, upset-minded Arizona State team pushed Wilson and her teammates to the brink. Wilson came up big, scoring the go-ahead basket in the final minute and then draining two free throws in the final seconds to ice an eventual 71-68 win: “That ASU game was the hardest first- or second-round game I ever played. They were under-seeded due to injuries, and we got them fully healthy. It was like playing a team in the Elite Eight.
“When I hit that shot, it just sent us over the edge and showed us we could push through. Mentally, it was me saying I have to get fouled or get the bucket. It probably wasn’t even something that was drawn up. It was about making the play.”
When South Carolina advanced to the Final Four and defeated Stanford to move on the national final, Wilson was overcome by the sheer enormity of playing on March’s biggest stage: “Every team has the goal of winning the national championship, but it’s when you’re at the Final Four and you played that first game and now you’re in the final two that you’re like, ‘Wow, I can be a national champion.’
“I remember the day before we played, after our shootaround, I was in my hotel room crying. [Teammate] Allisha Gray had to come in there and comfort me, because it was so overwhelming. I grew up watching UConn and Tennessee raising national championships, and then here I am, a junior in college looking to do the same. It was very overwhelming. So I’m crying in my hotel room, because it was so surreal.”
After winning the title, Wilson says the celebration was a blur. But with some time having passed, she is now beginning to realize the effect a championship has had on her, personally and professionally: “Winning a championship is always something at the top of your list. Being part of a championship team, knowing that when you walk into that gym, no matter how many years it’s been, when you go back and visit, you’ll see that banner.
“I can tell my future kids I was part of that. That’s something special that I honestly can’t put into words. … I’m glad I was part of a team that won the national championship—and also a group of girls that really helped me out in life. I still talk to them, we still hang out. We love each other. It’s bigger than having that championship ring.”
Wilson finished her college career the following year with another deep tournament run. South Carolina made the Elite Eight before running into perennial power Connecticut to meet its demise. After playing in 18 tournament games, what Wilson remembers most is how demanding the game becomes when the calendar flips to March: “The biggest obstacle when going and winning a championship would have to be staying focused, being mentally prepared for anything that comes your way. It’s not going to be perfect. That’s the hard part about it. The biggest thing that surprised me was how hard it was. Like, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but it was really, really hard.”
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.