As time began to trickle down and UConn's lead continued to grow on Monday night, A'ja Wilson finally saw her South Carolina career come to an end. With just over three minutes left and the Gamecocks down by 31, head coach Dawn Staley took her star senior out for one final time, and although they were in Albany, New York, Wilson got one last ovation for her time in garnet and black. While she sat on the bench with a towel over her face to hide her tears, it really hit Wilson that her collegiate career was over.
It's been four years since Wilson made her decision to stay at home and play for the Gamecocks, and the impact that she's made on the program is undeniable. She's now the all-time leading scorer, espnW and USA Today Sports National Player of the Year, three-time SEC Player of the Year and just the seventh women's basketball player to win three AP First-Team All-America honors. While her honors and accomplishments go on and on, the impact that she's made on the University of South Carolina and Columbia community will be one she will always remember.
Wilson has been a leader not only on the court but also in her community. Former teammate Allisha Gray, who was drafted fourth overall in last year’s WNBA draft, saw firsthand was Wilson was able to do for South Carolina.
“A’ja has done so many great things for the community as a whole at South Carolina, like, I’ve never known a person that brings a whole state together,” Gray said. “And just her impact on the state has brought so much positivity. I can’t wait to see what her future holds.”
For her current teammates, they saw every night on the court how much the community loved Wilson, and vice versa. Doniyah Cliney, who came to the program with Wilson but has another season due to sitting out because of an ineligibility waiver from the NCAA, has seen Wilson's impact constantly over the past four years.
"I came in with her, and I'm not leaving with her. It's kind of weird, but she means a lot to this team, and to me as well. She's grown from a freshman until her senior ... I feel like, she's like a big sister that I've always wanted," Cliney said. "Obviously I've also learned a lot of things just being with her and around her both on and off the court. She's going to leave a great blueprint behind her."
Staley has talked many times over the past few months about what Wilson means to her, this program and this state. On the court, Wilson led the team most nights in scoring and rebounds, and Staley has even commented about how next year will go without Wilson. But outside of the arena, Wilson’s been a leader and role model for the community.
“What again we’ll miss a lot is, I get a lot of people to request for me to come speak or come do whatever, if I can’t do it for one reason or another, the person we call is A’ja,” Staley said. “She’s never turned down opportunities to go out and speak, and a lot of times she ends up being the best person for the job instead of me.”
The South Carolina community showed how much they would miss Wilson after this season. During her senior night and during her final home game during the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the crowd at Colonial Life got to their feet, gave her a loud ovation and started chanting her name. The community was excited when Wilson announced the University of South Carolina as her home and made her a forever part of the Gamecock family.
The impact Wilson has made on the program, community and state is unparalleled, but her time is up. Although she's loved her time here, Wilson is ready for her next chapter in the WNBA. While Staley knows she's going to miss her, she also knows the mark Wilson has left is greater than anything else.
"It’s bittersweet. I wouldn’t want her to have another year," Staley said after Monday's loss. "She’s done so much for our program, for our state, our university and all of the little girls that grow up looking like her. She was a poster child for inspiration and a beacon of hope."
The support that Wilson has received over the past four years has been some of the strongest for any South Carolina athlete, as many consider her to be one of the greatest athletes to ever play at the University of South Carolina. And one thing is for certain: Once the WNBA draft comes around and Wilson's name is called pretty early on, one professional team is going to gain a huge new following.