March 19, 2018
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina coach Dawn Staley watched once more as All-American A’ja Wilson took control of a victory and whispered to an assistant, ”How are we going to replace ’22?”’
Fortunately for Staley, she doesn’t have to find out the answer yet after Wilson, No. 22, had 25 points and 11 rebounds in her last-ever college home game to lead the Gamecocks to a fifth straight trip to the Sweet 16 with a 66-56 over No. 10 seeded Virginia in the women’s NCAA Tournament’s Albany Regional on Sunday night.
Wilson, the three-time Southeastern Conference player of the year, posted her 23rd double-double of the season and 53rd of her career for the Gamecocks (28-6).
”At the end of the game when I got subbed out that’s when it sank in, this is my last time here,” Wilson said. ”My last time here in this uniform.”
And the second-seeded Gamecocks needed every one of Wilson’s points to push past Virginia (19-14).
Up 30-25 at the half, South Carolina opened up a 12-point lead in the third period before the Cavaliers cut it to 46-40 with 10 minutes left. Virginia still trailed just 52-47 after Dominique Toussaint’s driving bucket with 6:39 to play.
That’s when Doniyah Cliney hit a high-arching 3-pointer from the right corner and Wilson added two short jumpers to put the Gamecocks in front by double digits. Virginia could not respond.
Wilson came out of the game for good with 34.5 seconds left to a standing ovation from the late-night crowd. She hugged head coach Dawn Staley before standing on the sidelines and gabbing with the training staff as time ticked away.
After a quick TV interview, Wilson danced her way around the Colonial Life Arena, waving to adoring fans – there were 10,037 for Staley’s late-night pajama party – and stopping in front of the pep band to dance some more before running to embrace her parents.
”This has been a great four years,” said Wilson, whose family is about 30 minutes from campus in Hopkins. ”This is my home and, hopefully, when I return, we’ll have the same energy.”
Wilson added three of her team’s five blocks and three assists in her final game on her home court. The Gamecocks have gone 62-4 at home with Wilson on the roster.
South Carolina has reached the round of 16 for the past five seasons – including four with Wilson – and six of the past seven years.
Virginia was seeking its first regional semifinal since 2010. The Cavaliers hung tough most of the game despite going up against Staley, the greatest women’s athlete in Virginia athletics who led the program to three Final Fours when she played from 1989-92.
”I’m so incredibly proud of this team, just their fight,” Cavaliers coach Joanne Boyle said. ”They just fought and believed in each other.”
Toussaint and J’Kyra Brown had 16 points each to lead Virginia.
Virginia: The Cavaliers showed tenacity and grit in their first two NCAA games since their last appearance in 2010. With three of their top five scorers from this season sophomores, including leading scorer Dominique Toussaint, Virginia will look to continue making strides in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks out-talented the competition – perhaps even out-Wilsoned them – in two home NCAA games. That won’t fly in Albany in the Sweet 16 if the defending national champions hope to make a second straight title run in a region that includes No. 1 overall seed UConn. South Carolina will need more production from point guard Tyasha Harris and Alexis Jennings, who combined to go 8-of-20 shooting in the win over Virginia.
ANTHEM MIX UP
When it was time for the national anthem, only Virginia was lined up and ready. South Carolina was in the locker room, thinking it would not be played until the pre-game clock ran down (as was the case during the regular season) instead of with 12 minutes to go per the NCAA’s run down. Dawn Staley apologized for her team’s absence. ”Charge it to our heads and not our hearts,” she said.
If anyone thought fans wouldn’t turn out for a late Sunday game, they don’t know fans of the Gamecock women’s basketball team. There were 10,037 people in attendance, several in pajamas to honor the late start. Both Boyle and Wilson said the continued cheering and shouting made it hard to call signals. ”Dawn said to me, `They’re crazy,”’ Boyle said. ”She meant that in a good way.”
South Carolina will play either Florida State or Buffalo in the Sweet 16 on Saturday.