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South Carolina's A’ja Wilson rising to top of hoops world

South Carolina’s A'ja Wilson has developed into one of the nation’s best in just her sophomore year.
South Carolina’s A'ja Wilson has developed into one of the nation’s best in just her sophomore year. tglantz@thestate.com

She’s always stood out. A 6-foot-5 woman at a small private school in South Carolina could hardly be missed.

She continues to do so in college, and this week took another step to her ultimate goal.

South Carolina sophomore A’ja Wilson is one of four finalists for the Naismith Trophy, given to the most outstanding player in college basketball. Odds are low that she’ll win it – Connecticut star Breanna Stewart is bidding for her third straight Naismith, and her teammate Moriah Jefferson, as well as Wilson’s teammate, Tiffany Mitchell, are the other three finalists – but to be rubbing shoulders with some of the game’s other superstars is quite humbling, and quite enjoyable.

“It does maintain my confidence, just to be listed with some of the great players,” Wilson said Saturday, as the Gamecocks were preparing for their round of 32 matchup with Kansas State. “Me being so young shows that I have a lot more work to do, and I can’t wait to work harder to get there.”

Wilson is the only underclassman on the list. The other three will be paid for playing basketball next year. With her the only returnee, the story lines are already starting to circulate – in 2016-17, the new face of women’s basketball, playing for the new face of coaching women’s basketball in Dawn Staley, as opined by USA Today last week.

That’s also a mission, Wilson said.

“That’s one of my goals, to become one of those faces and be another person a little girl can look up to and say that she can play basketball,” she said.

Staley knew she hit the jackpot when Wilson, the top prospect in the country, pledged to USC out of Heathwood Hall Episcopal. A 6-5 player who could score inside and out, run the floor and play a little bit of defense (Wilson could do it in high school, although she despised it) added to a team that was already loaded with All-American talent was enough, Staley knew, to get her team to the Final Four.

That happened, as Wilson earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors and followed it with an SEC Player and Defensive Player of the Year season this year. Her presence on each end of the floor has her as a sure All-American when the teams are named.

“Tiffany was one that jumped out there and committed to us very early on in the recruiting process, and she got this program jump-started, and then A’ja Wilson, I think Tiff is passing the baton, so to speak, to her,” Staley said. “We work with A’ja Wilson every day and we do see some holes in our game, but by far, there’s not very many, if any, players in this country that can do the things A’ja Wilson does.”

Stewart is the player rep of women’s basketball at present, with Geno Auriemma taking the coach’s role as the Huskies gun for an unprecedented fourth straight national championship. While UConn is a machine, replacing lost stars with top prospects and winning title after title, perhaps a changing of the guard is looming.

Wilson wants to be the new queen, particularly with her coach already looking to take Auriemma’s spot. As good as she’s already been, Staley often says Wilson has only scratched the surface.

Against Jacksonville on Friday, Wilson went for a layup on the right side, had it knocked from her hand, regained control while still in the air and put it in from the left. It was the kind of play that isn’t seen that often in the women’s game, yet Wilson makes it look easy.

There are some things to work on, as there always are playing for a coach that re-defined the game. It’s constructive criticism, and if Wilson heeds it, Staley sees no limit to what she can do.

“I’d like for her to stretch the floor out a little bit more, add a 3-point shot to her game. I won’t talk about defense right now because she can throw being SEC Defensive Player of the Year in my face, but she’s got to get better on that side of the ball,” Staley said. “Once she gets that down, and she’s working at it, she’ll become more complete.”

Wilson is no stranger to hype. As the top recruit in the country who waited until after her senior season to commit, she had fans, media and coaches breathlessly waiting until she picked from among USC, UConn, Tennessee and North Carolina. Talking about her being the most popular player in the country next year isn’t foreign – but isn’t denied.

“There are so many great players in this league and this country, to be even recognized is a huge honor,” she said. “It’s going to have its days, I’m sure, but it’s the lifestyle we all chose.”

As a former National Player of the Year, Staley knows about hype and how it can hurt. With Wilson, she has only seen it handled. There’s no doubt she could handle it if it increased next year.

“As she continues to grow in this game, why not?,” Staley said. “Why not A’ja Wilson being the person, the player, that people talk about when they talk about women’s basketball?”

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(9) KANSAS STATE (19-12) at (1) SOUTH CAROLINA (32-1)

What: Second round, NCAA tournament

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia

TV: ESPN

Tickets: Available at the box office

Kansas State’s probable starters: G Kindred Wesemann 5-6 Jr. (12.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg), G Megan Deines 6-1 Sr. (9.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg), G Shaelyn Martin 6-0 So. (4.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg), F Breanna Lewis 6-5 Jr. (16.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg), F Kaylee Page 6-2 So. (6.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg)

South Carolina’s probable starters: G Khadijah Sessions 5-8 Sr. (6.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell 5-9 Sr. (14.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg); G Asia Dozier 6-0 Sr. (3.1 ppg, 1.0 rpg); F A’ja Wilson 6-5 So. (16.4 ppg, 8.8 rpg); C Alaina Coates 6-4 Jr. (11.9 ppg, 10.1 rpg)

Next game: The winner plays the Syracuse-Albany winner at a time to be determined on Friday in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Player of Year candidates

The finalists for the Naismith Trophy, given to the women’s player of the year by the Atlanta Tipoff Club.

A’ja Wilson

USC sophomore forward

The SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year leads USC with 16.4 points per game.

Tiffany Mitchell

USC senior guard

The SEC Tournament MVP after leading USC to its second consecutive tournament championship.

Moriah Jefferson

UConn senior guard

Coach Geno Auriemma said he’s never seen a better point guard than the speedy Jefferson.

Breanna Stewart

UConn senior forward

She had 25 points, including 3-of-4 3-pointers, 10 rebounds and five blocks against USC in February.

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