YOU DON'T expect to hear much about Steely Dan at the women's Final Four—the event is more Jay Z than jazz rock—but South Carolina star forward A'ja Wilson is happy to tell you the story if you ask. Her father, Roscoe Wilson Jr., played professional basketball for a decade in Europe and South America, and while staying in the fishing port town of Sanary-sur-Mer on the French Riviera in the late 1970s, he attended a Steely Dan concert following the release of their album Aja. As soon as he heard the title track, he fell in love with it.
"That's how I got my name," says A'ja Wilson. "I guess he liked the little apostrophe too. I really love that name. I just think it's unique, and I consider myself a unique person."
Wilson's basketball skills are equally singular. What makes the 6'5" junior center unique is that she not only has the long wingspan and size to make her a ferocious post presence but also possesses the athleticism and quickness of a much smaller player. She is also a one-woman advertisement for the Palmetto State. Wilson grew up in Hopkins, S.C., a town of 3,000 that's 20 minutes south of Columbia. When South Carolina hired coach Dawn Staley from Temple in May 2008, Wilson was 11. Over the next six years Staley and her staff kept close tabs on the prodigy from just down the road who, entering her senior year at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School, emerged as the No. 1 prospect in the country. While Wilson fell hard for a lot of programs, including UConn, she finally committed to South Carolina, citing Staley as the biggest factor. The coach's résumé as a point guard covered everything Wilson wanted: three Final Four appearances, three Olympic gold medals and a 2013 induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
But on Sunday night in Dallas, Wilson achieved something that Staley never did—a national championship as a player—while delivering her native state its first college basketball title. In a 67--55 victory over Mississippi State at American Airlines Center, Wilson led the way with 23 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks, and was a runaway choice for the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. "I wanted to be like LeBron James and bring one home," says Wilson, who averaged 19.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.7 blocks during the NCAA tournament. "The state has done so much for me, and I can't even put into words what it's like when you have done something for your state. I am honored to wear these words [SOUTH CAROLINA] across my chest."
The Gamecocks' theme this season was "100"—getting 100% from players, coaches and fans. The zeroes also stood for zero excuses and zero boundaries. That also encapsulates the career of Staley. At 7:12 p.m. CDT on Sunday, she became the first Most Outstanding Player of a Final Four to also win a national title as a coach. (She was named the MOP despite Virginia's loss to Tennessee in the 1991 final.) The 46-year-old Staley is also the second African-American woman to win a Division I championship, after Purdue's Carolyn Peck in '99.
"When I couldn't get it done in college, I thought that was it—I never wanted to be a coach," says Staley. "The late Dave O'Brien, the athletic director at Temple University, saw something in me that I didn't see in myself. He asked me to be a part of changing the program. [Now] I really can't see myself doing anything other than what I'm doing, impacting the lives of young people. To be able to check this box off in my career, I'm really grateful and thankful that he made this possible."
Staley should also thank her star center. Over the final 6:52, after the Bulldogs had cut a 14-point lead to 54--50, Wilson responded with eight points, three rebounds and two blocks. "It was now or never," she says. "I had to make an impact for my team." As the game ended, she sobbed on the bench, a towel covering her head. She cried again during an interview with ESPN's Holly Rowe. Wilson finally walked off the court 48 minutes after the buzzer but not before she and junior guard Kaela Davis, the 6'2" daughter of former NBA player Antonio Davis, danced as the Mighty Sound of the Southeast, the South Carolina marching band, played into the night.
AT THE TEAM HOTEL two days earlier, after South Carolina's 62--53 semifinal win over Stanford, Wilson watched on her phone as 5'3" Mississippi State junior guard Morgan (Itty Bitty) William hit a 14-footer as time expired in overtime to beat UConn 66--64. The basket ended the Huskies' streak of 111 consecutive victories—dating to Nov. 17, 2014—an all-time record for men or women. The championship game, however, was a nightmare for William. She was hounded by speedy junior Bianca Cuevas-Moore and benched for long stretches by coach Vic Schaefer. Itty Bitty had a minuscule eight points in just 23 minutes. "If we lose in the championship game, people will think of us as underdogs who just got lucky against UConn," William said on Saturday.
That was hardly the case. Schaefer told reporters before the semifinal that his group—which set a school record with 34 wins—was much more mature than the one that UConn had torched 98--38 in a Sweet 16 matchup last year. As a motivating tool for the season, strength-and-conditioning coach Anthony Harvey last October drew the number 60 (the margin of defeat to the Huskies) in black dry erase marker on the windows of his office inside the weight room at Mize Pavilion. The 60 was impossible to miss—the numbers were about two feet in length—and stared down at the players during every bench press, squat and push-up.
If UConn had weaknesses this year, they were a lack of post size and underclassmen who had not played heavy minutes at a Final Four. The Bulldogs brilliantly exploited those weaknesses by pounding the ball inside to take advantage of a rare window of opportunity. Next fall the Huskies will—again—have the top incoming class in the country; counting transfers, it's one of the best this decade. The jewel of the group is Megan Walker, a 6'1" shooting guard from Monacan High in Chesterfield County, Va., who was named the Naismith Player of the Year. Transfers Azurá Stevens (from Duke) and Batouly Camara (Kentucky) will also be eligible.
The Huskies will be the preseason No. 1, but South Carolina won't be far behind, given that all the starters from Sunday's final will return. Wilson missed two games in January with a right-ankle sprain, an injury that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Staley & Co. were forced to use a smaller lineup, which placed more scoring and defensive responsibilities on Davis and Allisha Gray, a 6'1" junior guard who had 18 points and 10 rebounds against the Bulldogs. The emergence of the supporting cast allowed the Gamecocks to peak in March, even without their second-best player, senior center Alaina Coates, who went down with a right-ankle injury during the SEC tournament. With Coates sidelined, South Carolina shifted from a two-post team to a four-around-one team that proved to be effective in giving Wilson more space to work in the tournament. Coates's contributions to the team—which went 14--2 in SEC play and won its third straight conference championship—were not forgotten. On the podium after the game, Staley screamed, "We miss Alaina Coates so dearly. Lay, we got you a ring!"
Outside of the Gamecocks' locker room an hour after the win, Staley, still wearing the championship net around her neck, could not stop talking about her centerpiece. "A'ja Wilson could have gone anywhere in the country," Staley said. "For her to choose to stay home in South Carolina and believe in our coaching staff, and for us to believe in her, well, it just goes to show that homegrown can work out."
Moments earlier, in the same spot, Wilson had been surrounded by reporters when she was asked what it would be like to wake up the next morning as a national champion. "Well, you have to go to sleep to wake up," she said, smiling, "and I'm not going to sleep."
"I wanted to be like LeBron James," says Wilson, "and BRING ONE HOME. South Carolina has done so much for me, and I can't put into words what it's like to do something for your state."