A'ja Wilson picks South Carolina

Gamecocks land No. 1 recruit in country

A’ja Wilson was sitting with her family Tuesday night when she made her decision. The nation’s top women’s basketball recruit was working on her senior paper, on Title IX. Mom was in her recliner; dad was on the couch.

The family had been ignoring the elephant in the room, said her mother, Eva Wilson: The next day, A’ja would be announcing her college plans live on ESPNU, the last of the country’s top 100 recruits to do so. In the days before, she grew quiet, thinking through her options and praying.

“I looked at her, she looked at me, she looked at him, and she said, ‘The lord has led me to South Carolina,’” Eva Wilson said.

The next day, A’ja would say it again, calling South Carolina coach Dawn Staley to tell her she’d made up her mind. The hushed tones of their conversation turned into screams from Staley and her staff. A’ja said the noise made her ears ring.

And at 3:30 in the afternoon, she said it one last time, live on national TV in the gym where she’d led Heathwood Hall Episcopal School to a state championship.

Off air, she ran to the people she’d thanked a few minutes earlier — to her teammates who stood courtside and to a few hundred classmates, who jumped to “Sandstorm” in the bleachers and chanted “U-S-C.”

At USC, the announcement inspired an outburst of excitement. Wilson headlines an already-strong recruiting class that will start playing the year after the team earned its first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and its first regular-season SEC championship.

USC President Harris Pastides tweeted a photo of himself cheering in his office. Staley tweeted simply, “BOOM!!!!” Later, she’d post the phone number for USC’s ticket office.

“I know our office was louder than Heathwood Hall today,” Staley said at a press conference.

Before Wilson announced her decision, South Carolina had the No. 4 recruiting class, with three other signees in the ESPNW top 100. The addition of the 6-foot-5 forward vaulted the Gamecock class to second in the nation, behind only UCLA and the Bruins’ five top-100 recruits.

“These are the players that we set out to sign years ago,” Staley said. “For us to be able to check off almost everybody who we wanted was incredible.”

In the end, Wilson eliminated Connecticut, North Carolina and Tennessee before picking South Carolina. She said that getting to know their coaches on visits helped her decide. Her mom took notes on each program, making a spreadsheet to compare them all.

“It was very tough for me, because it was just four great programs,” A’ja Wilson said. “Really the great part was just getting to know the coaches, talking with the coaches and really getting to see who they are.”

South Carolina’s No. 2 recruiting class will join a team that went 27-4 in the regular season last year and made it to the sweet 16 before falling to North Carolina. All but one of the team’s players will return next year.

“This is huge for South Carolina,” said Dan Olson, director of ESPNW’s Hoopgurlz. “It really gives them a chance at a Final Four run.”

But Wilson’s set her sights higher than that. She picked an up-and-coming program that she credits Staley with turning around over established women’s basketball powerhouses, but she’s still got her eyes on the sport’s top prize.

“My goal is to win a national championship,” Wilson said. “I’m not going to put a date on it or a year on it, but I think that we can accomplish that goal, and that’s our mindset.”

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