Hometown hero A'ja Wilson helps deliver South Carolina's first NCAA title

DALLAS -- A'ja Wilson is, as teammate and roommate Allisha Gray put it, "a celebrity" in Columbia, South Carolina.

The Gamecocks center sticks out not only because she is 6-foot-5 but also because she is a local girl playing for her hometown university as one of the most prominent, heralded female athletes in the country.

That scenario comes with its perks: the built-in support system, dinners at home with family, a lot of friendly faces, and words of encouragement and advice.

"Everybody in the grocery store is a basketball coach," Wilson said.

That scenario also comes with unmistakable pressure. But some of that pressure might be off after Wilson helped South Carolina beat Mississippi State 67-55 on Sunday at American Airlines Center, delivering a national championship to the Gamecocks. Wilson's 23-point, 10-rebound, four-block performance, including a late burst in the closing moments of a close game, gave South Carolina its first NCAA title.

"Being from South Carolina has given me a lot of joy," Wilson said as she soaked in the accomplishment. "It's a tough thing at times. But it's also a great thing."

When Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley pulled Wilson out of the game with 43 seconds left on the clock and the national championship in hand, the junior went to the bench and covered her head with a towel as the tears began to flow. Even after the horn sounded, she hesitated for a moment before joining her teammates in the celebration.

Up in the stands, Roscoe Wilson stood stone-faced, eyes fixed on his daughter, barely saying a word to anyone until the confetti fell. Then he hugged A'ja's mother, Eva, for a long moment before making his way to the court.

Three years after his daughter decided, as the No. 1 recruit in the nation, to stay home and play for the Gamecocks, the moment they wanted so badly had arrived.

"I am so excited for my daughter, for the team, for my family," Roscoe Wilson said as the South Carolina players celebrated on the court and Staley held the trophy over her head and marched toward the South Carolina family section in the stands. "This has been a long road for her, working hard trying to get to this point. I saw her emotion. She knows how much work she's put into this. She has sacrificed so much to get to this point, and she realizes it."

Wilson, named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, did everything the Gamecocks needed and more on Sunday night. When it was over, her task accomplished, she danced it out again with the South Carolina band.

"I knew we were playing for something," Wilson said. "I was nervous, but I knew I had to be aggressive."

Wilson has been the center of this program -- literally and figuratively -- since she arrived in 2014 as the most heralded recruit in program history. Under Staley and with Wilson on the floor, South Carolina has risen to be among the nation's elite. South Carolina also leads the nation in attendance for women's basketball.

Never has she been counted on more than in the last few games, since senior Alaina Coates went out with a season-ending ankle injury. The Gamecocks changed their game plan to compensate for Coates' absence, putting more of a burden on Wilson to dominate the paint, and she stepped forward.

She averaged 19.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per game in the NCAA tournament and figured out what her team needed most on any given night. She went for 21 points and 11 rebounds in a tight win over Arizona State in the second round. On Friday in a national semifinal, she struggled to score (13 points) but pulled down 19 rebounds.

"Losing a piece like Alaina Coates was tough, but we've all been hit with adversity, and we had to play through it," Wilson said. "That's when I knew I had to step up."

On Sunday, she finished with a fourth-quarter stretch that sealed the championship, including eight points, two blocks and three rebounds in the final 5:39 to propel the Gamecocks' 13-5 run to close the game.

"I just knew I needed to make an impact on the game," Wilson said.

Her impact has a far bigger reach. She will go home as a conquering hero in a way that few local athletes in Columbia can claim.

"I think it can be a hard thing for her sometimes to have everyone in South Carolina look to her, and she bears the burden of all of that," teammate Kaela Davis said. "But she's proud to be where she's from, and I know she's proud of what we accomplished tonight."

Staley said recruiting Wilson wasn't easy. The coach said she made Wilson no promises beyond a guarantee that she would have to work hard. But Staley realizes the extra burden on Wilson.

"Staying home is a huge responsibility, and it's taxing because everybody knows her," Staley said. "Everybody wants to stop and have a conversation with her. We knew what was going to take place."

Staley said patience has been the key to getting the best out of Wilson.

"She's different. She's not one that you can keep pounding," Staley said. "She's one that needs to see it, needs it explained to her, and needs someone to be real patient with her. If you're patient with her, you know, this is what you get in return."

Wilson acknowledged that her emotions got the better of her in the game's closing moments, as she thought of her grandmother, who died last fall. She had dedicated the season to her grandmother's memory, and her teammates and coaches lifted her through a difficult time.

"When the tragedy like losing her grandmother occurred earlier this season, if she was anywhere else, she probably would have been transferring back to South Carolina," Staley said. "I'm glad she chose to stay with us so we could share in that moment and help her mend a little bit.

"It was a great fit for our program. It was a great fit for her family. I'm glad that we were able to cut down the nets."