A'ja Wilson chooses South Carolina
A'ja Wilson looked right at home in the national spotlight Wednesday. And that's exactly where she'll stay.
Wilson, the No. 1 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100, announced her long-awaited college decision, choosing to stay home in Columbia and play at South Carolina.
In front of a pumped-up crowd in her high school gym, the versatile 6-foot-5 forward from Columbia's Heathwood Hall made her announcement live on ESPNU. She was the lone undeclared Top 100 prospect heading into the NCAA's regular signing period.
"I will be attending the University of South Carolina," said Wilson, who chose South Carolina over Connecticut, North Carolina and Tennessee. "There's really just no place like home."
The 17-year-old Wilson becomes the gem of coach Dawn Staley's class. She averaged 35 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks per game during her senior season and led Heathwood Hall to a state title. Her 3-pointer to tie the score at the end of regulation in the state championship game was the stuff of legend. Heathwood Hall went on to beat Northwood Academy 66-58 in overtime.
Her value was never more evident than in two games against New Hope Christian, which finished the season with a single loss and as the No. 21 team in the espnW 25 Power Rankings. On Jan. 10, with Wilson injured and on the bench, Heathwood Hall suffered a 97-25 loss to New Hope (Thomasville, N.C.). The following month, in a rematch with Wilson back on the court, Heathwood improved its margin by 59 points, losing 64-51.
Wilson's skills have not gone without notice. She was named national player of the year by both Parade Magazine and the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, plus won Naismith Player of the Year and South Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year honors.
"I am overjoyed with A'ja and her family joining our Gamecock family," Staley said at on the team's website. "She represents South Carolina on so many levels, and we're so glad the entire state will see her career unfold on our campus. It truly is a great day to be a Gamecock."
At the McDonald's game in Chicago on April 2, Wilson had 10 points, 9 rebounds, 4 blocks and 3 steals in 24 minutes.
South Carolina and Staley are getting a unique talent, Heathwood coach John O'Cain said.
"She's 6-5, but she handles like a guard," O'Cain said. "If you put someone smaller on her, she knows how to post up. If you put someone bigger, she will face up and take her to the basket. She's a tough matchup."
Wilson's skills help explain why there were four large bins in her living room, all of them stuffed full of letters from colleges.
"The bins are the size of a recliner," Wilson said.
As a sophomore, Wilson showed her elite athleticism, making all-state in volleyball and breaking the school record in the 100-meter dash in track and field before deciding to focus on basketball.
O'Cain said Wilson would have played varsity in the seventh grade if South Carolina rules would have allowed it but instead settled for becoming an instant starter the next year, averaging 14 points and eight rebounds.
Heathwood Hall reached its class' final four every year since Wilson arrived on varsity. But the school hadn't won a state title in more than two decades before this season's breakthrough.
O'Cain said Wilson, a left-hander, must continue to improve with her right hand. He also said she needs to get stronger, something he feels will happen naturally as she begins a weight-training program in college.
Wilson, whose father, Roscoe, was a 6-8 forward who played pro ball for a decade in Europe, has attended Heathwood Hall since first grade. O'Cain, who teaches middle-school physical education at Heathwood, began to notice her in the fifth grade.
"She was a head taller than everyone else, and she had this big ol' smile," O'Cain said. "You could tell she loved the game."
Wilson spent last summer winning a gold medal along with her U.S. teammates at the U-19 world championships in Lithuania. She averaged 10.9 points and a team-high 7.9 rebounds. She also led the team with 15 blocks and added nine steals.
Playing for Team USA set back her decision-making process on college, Wilson said. Because of that, she delayed her decision until the start of the regular signing period. Earlier this week Wilson said one of the highlights of her recruitment was her visit to South Carolina, where an impromptu rap created by Gamecocks players broke out during a team dinner.
Wilson also has excelled in the classroom, earning a B average and serving as a member of her school's student government and honor council.
She has donated her time, too, serving as a youth basketball and volleyball instructor and helping her church with its after-school care program.
"She's a superstar without the superstar attitude," O'Cain said. "She's very coachable.
"I think she will play pro ball and the Olympics, too -- if she wants to. But I think she will go even further in life than she will in basketball."