The city of Columbia knows A’ja Wilson as the unstoppable University of South Carolina basketball forward; I, however, know her as the toughest girl I ever had to guard in high school. My 5-foot-4-inch frame provided a feeble barrier between her athletic 6-foot-5-inch physique and the basket. Despite my futile efforts to inhibit her next lay-up in a practice scrimmage, A’ja managed to score an effortless shot while also providing encouraging tips to improve my defensive stance.
A’ja led the Heathwood Hall Episcopal School basketball team with not only her superior stats and athletic ability but also her loyal and encouraging demeanor in the locker room and sidelines. Upon advancing her athletic career into college basketball at USC, A’ja continued her success as she transitioned into elevated competition. Her freshman year, she received numerous prestigious awards, including the SEC Freshman of the Year Award, Gold Medal with Team USA, FIBA U19 World Championship All-Star and FIBA U19 World Champions MVP. This summer, A’ja divulged the behind-the-scenes life of a USC women’s basketball player.
What is the moment you are most proud of in your USC basketball career thus far?
Making it to the Final Four. Everyone came in with the expectation of us succeeding, and I never doubted we would get there. Coming in as a freshman and going to the Final Four was the best thing ever.
What are some challenges you have encountered while playing for the USC women’s basketball team?
Hitting that “freshman wall” where things aren’t going your way. At some point in the season, it just seems like nothing is going well, but when you surround yourself with such a great coaching staff and a great group of girls, they don’t let you get too low with your lows. Playing out of that hole was my biggest challenge.
What is your mindset going into each game?
Do whatever I can, the best that I can.
Do you have a favorite memory thus far in your USC basketball career?
My favorite off-court memory is going into Coach’s room with Tiffany Mitchell on the road and messing up her things here and there.
Is it hard juggling academics with your athletic commitment?
I thought so initially, but we have academic advisors, study halls and other resources that make it a lot easier than I expected.
Describe the relationship between teammates on the USC basketball team. Do your personalities complement each other on and off the court?
Our personalities complement each other great! I think that is the best thing — we are more like sisters rather than teammates. It translates over to the court because we know each other so well. We know when to get underneath each other’s skin and when not to.
What are your team’s strengths? Weaknesses?
Our team’s strength is sticking together when times get tough. We have all endured tough things in the course of a year, so I think coming together as one to get the job done is a definite strength. One of our weaknesses is holding each other accountable when needed. I think sometimes we let teammates slip up because we are hesitant. However, I believe we are improving.
What has been the toughest game for the USC team?
Our toughest game in my career so far would have to be the game against UCONN. The media hyped it up — we were number one, and they were number two. It was kind of the reverse of what people imagined. That was a big game for us, and we learned a lot that game. I think we came back with a chip on our shoulder. I know I came back with a chip on my shoulder because I got introduced to a whole different level of basketball that night.
What is a typical day of training for a USC woman basketball athlete?
Our typical schedule before school starts with individuals and then weights, and they work us hard for both of those. It’s tough because it is back-to-back and your body doesn’t have time to rest at that moment when you want to. You know you just have to push through the pain. After that, we recover. When classes start, you have to throw class and study hall in there.
How do you like working with Coach Dawn Staley? Describe her coaching strategies that work well with the team as a whole and you individually.
I love working with Coach Staley. She is like my mom away from my mom. She is very easy to talk to, and that is one of her coaching strengths with me. I can talk to her about anything, and it is not necessarily just player to coach — more like mother to daughter. Also, she knows me as a player and how I work, which is great.
The USC women’s basketball team secured its first ever SEC Tournament championship with a 62-46 win against Tennessee. For you, what was the most triumphant moment of the game?
When Khadijah Sessions was in the corner, her hot spot, and she knocked down that 3-pointer. Her shot boosted all of our confidence in the game. We never really doubted our victory, but sometimes we slip up. So once she made that shot, we were hyped.
The USC women’s basketball team also made their first ever NCAA Final Four appearance, repeated as the SEC regular-season champions and won a school-record 34 games en route to the national semi-finals. What do you think facilitated these wins and what stumbling blocks did you encounter?
Our obstacle was knowing that every night our opposing team would bring their best game. We had a target on our back. Each team would come out and play hard because everyone would be happy to give us a run. We knew we could not slip up. Coach Staley really helped us by not letting us get too high with the highs and too low with the lows. I think the biggest reason we were successful was because we knew the talent and the players that we had. We were able to stick together. We didn’t fix anything that wasn’t broken, but we always looked for improvement.
What can we expect from the USC women’s basketball team this upcoming season?
You should expect to see the same thing you saw last year but 10 times better … if you can picture that. I can, and it puts a smile on my face just thinking about it. We will have a great team this year. We are all on the same page and are capable of doing huge things here at the University of South Carolina.
How is the team mentality different this year?
I do feel a different vibe, but it is for the better. I don’t feel a vibe where we are cocky but a vibe of improvement — even though we made it far last year. I think this year we understand what it takes to succeed. So our mentality now is just to get better and better and not let anyone tear us down.
Tell me something about the basketball team that no one knows.
We are all comedians. We are all clowns. When you look at us you would think some of us are quiet and low key, but in the locker room … all you hear is us laughing.