South Carolina's A'ja Wilson is espnW's player of the year

A'ja Wilson, who helped South Carolina win an unprecedented fourth straight SEC tournament title, is averaging 22.6 points and 11.8 rebounds, with 94 blocks. Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports

It is always a challenge to whittle down the best of the women's college basketball season to three honorees: player, coach and freshman of the year. But all three of our picks made major statements this season and found ways to separate themselves. Here are espnW's picks, as determined by Charlie Creme, Graham Hays and Mechelle Voepel:

Player of the year: South Carolina's A'ja Wilson

A'ja Wilson had just broken South Carolina's scoring record in the SEC tournament semifinals on March 3. She was asked if she knew the previous record-holder, Sheila Foster, and whether she had ever spoken with her. Wilson said no, but she'd like to.

Then guard Doniyah Cliney couldn't help but chime in that Foster frequently sat behind the Gamecocks' bench.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, OK," Wilson said, laughing as she corrected herself. "I had to get my people straight. I have talked to her."

It's understandable if Wilson can't always remember the many conversations she has had with South Carolina alums and supporters. Wilson, who led the Gamecocks to their first NCAA title last season as the Final Four most outstanding player, has been the face of the program the past four seasons, especially this year as a senior.

And what a year it has been for her. She led the Gamecocks to a second-place finish in the SEC regular season and then was MVP as South Carolina won the SEC tournament for an unprecedented fourth year in a row. Wilson was also named SEC player of the year for the third time. And it's all but certain that she'll be the first pick in April's WNBA draft.

Alaina Coates, Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis all left after South Carolina won the national championship and were picked in the 2017 WNBA draft. Wilson returned as the senior spokeswoman for the Gamecocks, and she has filled the leader's role well. She has averaged 22.6 points and 11.8 rebounds, with 94 blocks. For her career, Wilson has 2,298 points.

"At SEC media day, I heard some coaches saying, 'We've already started prepping for A'ja,'" Wilson said. "That started my thinking process of: 'This has got to be your season. Everybody expects that of you.'

"This year is different because we have some young players on the team who are trying to get back to where we were last year, and they think it's easy. But it's not. So it's about helping them understand that, too."

Wilson's standard refrain when asked about any of her myriad achievements is that it's "a blessing." And South Carolina coach Dawn Staley says the same thing in regard to getting to coach the hometown product Wilson for four years.

"A lot of times, people slow their growth as players because they have to work on their character and having better habits," Staley said. "With A'ja, it was strictly basketball she had to work on. We just had to give her the experience that she needed to grow and blossom into what she is." -- Mechelle Voepel

Coach of the year: Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw

Muffet McGraw is in the Naismith Hall of Fame. She has won a national championship. She has taken seven teams to the Final Four. She has coached numerous All-Americans. Yet 2017-18 might have been the best job she has ever done.

Four Irish players suffered ACL tears in the past calendar year, limiting McGraw to seven scholarship players -- and a number of those haven't been fully healthy. Still, Notre Dame lost just three games, tied for a fifth straight ACC regular-season title and likely heads into the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed for the seventh consecutive year.

McGraw knew she was entering the season without All-American forward Brianna Turner, who tore her ACL in last year's NCAA tournament. Then the injuries started piling up. Guard Mychal Johnson went down during the preseason, promising freshman forward Mikayla Vaughn got hurt right before the start of the season, and Stanford transfer Lili Thompson fell victim to the ACL epidemic in the second ACC game of the season.

The injuries to Johnson and Thompson left McGraw without a proven point guard and no depth in the backcourt. Sharp-shooter Marina Mabrey had to assume the role of lead guard with a little help from sophomore Jackie Young, who has played much of the season with a broken nose. After a 33-point loss at Louisville in mid-January, it appeared the injuries might be too much to overcome. But they weren't.

McGraw cut down on practice time, worked out new roles for nearly everyone still playing and expertly managed minutes. Two games after the Louisville blowout, McGraw and the depleted Irish engineered the largest comeback in school history (23 points) to beat Tennessee. That jump-started a 14-game winning streak that didn't end until a two-point loss to Louisville in the ACC tournament finals. The only teams Notre Dame has lost to this season are likely No. 1 seeds (UConn was the other).

McGraw has won national coach of the year three other times (2001, 2013, 2014), but none were likely as rewarding and satisfying as this one. -- Charlie Creme

Freshman of the year: Texas A&M's Chennedy Carter

Chennedy Carter knows what she's supposed to say as a point guard. You know, how she scores when she has to but mostly wants to pass the ball.

"I love breaking the defender down and then finding the open player," Carter said. "That's really a great feeling to me. I love to share the ball and get everybody involved."

But this kid can flat-out score. She leads the Aggies at 21.4 points per game, and scored 30 or more points five times -- including a 46-point performance in a 75-74 victory at Southern Cal on Dec. 15 in just her 11th college game.

Carter also had 156 assists to 111 turnovers, with 62 steals. She's shooting 44.5 percent from the field and has made 56 3-pointers.

The 5-foot-7 Carter -- who pronounces her first name "Kennedy" -- is from Mansfield, Texas. She has three brothers whom she says contributed to her fearless attitude on court.

"I feel like they instilled that competitor in me," Carter said. "So I know what I can do; I've put a lot of work in. And I know that my coaches are going to put me in position to be successful."

Aggies coach Gary Blair has had some terrific point guards over the years, and he sees Carter as another in that line.

"She understands the game. And sometimes, she has to take a little tough love," Blair said. "I'm not the easiest person to get along with sometimes. But the love-hate relationship you have with your point guard goes on until we become one [mind]. And when we become that, we can become unstoppable."

Carter played on USA Basketball's U19 team last summer, mostly at shooting guard, saying, "I was able to look up to people and get a lot of experience."

Blair added, "She can create her shot off of anybody. That's why USA basketball played her at the 2-guard, because they had [UConn's Crystal] Dangerfield and [South Carolina's] Tyasha Harris, and she wasn't ready to lead a team of stars like that. But she was ready to be their leading scorer, because she was instant offense at the 2."

This season for Texas A&M, Carter has sought to be instant offense as well as run the point. She has had a lot of success, and she has never shied from key moments.

"I'm kinda used to playing on big stages," Carter said. "I give the credit to my teammates and coaching staff -- they trusted and believed in me, and I trusted the process. Now everything has started to come together." -- Mechelle Voepel