Even in limited minutes, A'ja Wilson is South Carolina's difference-maker

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- South Carolina's A'ja Wilson didn't feel good enough to watch the Gamecocks' regular-season finale last Sunday at Tennessee. Dealing with the effects of vertigo, she stayed home to rest. South Carolina struggled without her, losing by 19.

Wilson also had missed the teams' first meeting, a 16-point loss at South Carolina on Jan. 14, with an ankle injury. So when the Lady Vols and Gamecocks met for a third time this season on Friday in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, all eyes were on Wilson.

It was a little like her freshman season: She came off the bench and made an immediate impact. Affecting the game so much that it was almost like a switch was flipped between when she was on the court and when she was off. And illustrating so clearly how different a team South Carolina is with Wilson than without her.

Fortunately for the Gamecocks, Wilson was able to be on the court for 19 minutes, enough to make a big difference. South Carolina won this battle -- and it really was that, with bodies flying all over the place -- 73-62. And the senior All-American, who had 24 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots, remained undefeated in SEC tournament play.

The No. 2 seed Gamecocks have won this title the past three seasons, and are currently riding a 10-game winning streak in SEC tournament games. Still, they're not the favorite this season. That's No. 1 seed Mississippi State, which beat Kentucky 81-58 earlier Friday to move to 31-0 this season and will next face No. 5 seed Texas A&M, which beat No. 4 LSU 75-69.

Mississippi State has looked terrific most of this season. But you still can't discount the Gamecocks' chance of winning the SEC tournament again, especially not with Wilson back.

"I feel like I'm 100 percent normal," Wilson said after the game, though she admitted it has been a challenging week. "I've gotten vertigo in the past, but it's always been in the offseason, so I'd had a lot of time to bounce back.

"This time was very different. It was tough because I like being in control, and I wasn't in that situation. It's serious, and I'm glad my medical staff took care of me."

During the third quarter Friday, Wilson left the court and headed back to the locker room. She said she wasn't nauseated, but just felt a little "in a fog." But she came back just in time to lead a 13-0 run after Tennessee had closed South Carolina's lead to 48-43.

The Lady Vols now wait for their NCAA tournament seed at 24-7 overall. Tennessee had its worst shooting percentage of the season -- 26.7, going 23-of-86 -- and while some of that was South Carolina's defense, some of it was just missing layups.

"We missed 34 shots in the paint. I mean, shots we normally get," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "So it was just a rough night for us inside the paint. Layups, 2-foot jumpers. We had our opportunities; we just couldn't finish."

By contrast, the South Carolina post players did finish. Wilson was 9-of-12 from the field. Redshirt junior Alexis Jennings was 7-of-11 for 19 points with 12 rebounds. Sophomore Mikiah Herbert Harrigan was 7-of-10 from 15 points. Freshman LeLe Grissett had just five points, but tied her season high with nine rebounds.

"That was the emphasis: Try to put Tennessee back on their heels and pound the ball in the paint," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "I thought Alexis did a great job. We just fed off what she was giving us on both sides of the ball. And she was rebounding the ball, she was scoring. And then we insert A'ja into the game, and she's a difference-maker."