ALBANY, N.Y. -- Early in the fourth quarter of South Carolina's regional semifinal win over Buffalo, Gamecocks star A'ja Wilson grabbed an offensive rebound and elevated for a layup.
Field goals had been hard to come by for the three-time SEC player of the year, and this one, as if in slow motion, bounced on the rim once, twice and a third time before falling in. Wilson, who also drew the and-1, stood underneath the basket and screamed -- loudly, but not in celebration. It was an exclamation of relief in a game, and in a tournament, that hadn't been her best. Finally, at a time when any game could be the last of her college career, something went her way.
"That was a nice feeling and I feel like energy really helps my teammates," Wilson said. "Whether it's screaming at everyone or putting the ball in the basket, that's how I operate to help my team."
That Wilson still had 20 points and 13 rebounds in a game she didn't feel was one of her better efforts is a testament to her talent and leadership, both of which will have to be on full display Monday when South Carolina faces UConn (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) in the Albany Regional final and for a spot in the Final Four.
The Huskies have gotten the best of the Gamecocks in Wilson's career, going 4-0 with an average margin of victory of over 18 PPG. For the most part, they have gotten the better of Wilson, too. The 6-foot-5 senior has averaged 13.5 points on 39.1 percent shooting from the field, and 8.3 rebounds in those four games against UConn. In the past two, when Wilson was the Gamecocks' go-to star, she shot a combined 9-of-30 from the floor.
Wilson doesn't shy away from her struggles against UConn, particularly in their regular-season meeting earlier this year, a 83-58 loss on Feb. 1 in Columbia, South Carolina.
"My focus was out the window. That was a huge part of the February game," said Wilson, who was 0-for-8 shooting in the second half when the Huskies own struggles after halftime opened the door for a comeback. "I was 4-for-18 and that's out of control. I got good looks. They are a great defensive team, but at the same time, I think it was me. I apologized to my teammates after that one. I want to hold myself accountable for everything and I wanted them to know that one was on me. I think I'm more in check now."
Those struggles aside, Wilson has the Huskies' attention.
"There's things that A'ja Wilson does that you could say, 'Well, we need to do something about that.' You can talk about it all you want. You still have to be able to stop it," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.
Wilson talked Saturday after the win over Buffalo about being "inside my own head a lot in this tournament" and not being herself. Wilson's teammates and the South Carolina coaching staff know they need a more typical performance from their All-American to beat UConn, but they also know they need to help her.
"Last game [against UConn] I feel like we didn't utilize all of our post presence," said Alexis Jennings, who managed just five points and took seven shots in that Feb. 1 contest. "I feel like all four of our post players have that confidence now coming off the game against Buffalo."
South Carolina assistant coach Fred Chmiel, who works with the Gamecocks' post players, said the game plan has been altered.
"A'ja likes to play in space and move freely, but they take that away from you," he said. "We've gone over some different things for this game, in particular the way they play defense. And some of the movements we want to exploit to get her in a position she can succeed."
UConn expects things to change, too. The Huskies dismissed their 25-point win over the Gamecocks nearly two months ago, knowing both teams are different now.
"We know they want this just as bad as we want it, so they are going to be aggressive and ready to go," said Katie Lou Samuelson, who scored 20 points in the early meeting and 15 in UConn's 72-59 Sweet 16 win over Duke on Saturday. "I'm sure they will have different ways to stop us that are different than the last game."
Defensively, South Carolina might have already found the adjustments it needs. The Huskies shot below 30 percent from the field in the second half and scored just 30 points after the break in their Feb. 1 meeting. And the Gamecocks already have had success this season with second chances against undefeated teams. They turned a 67-53 regular-season loss to Mississippi State on Feb. 6 into a 62-51 win in the SEC tournament championship game less than a month later. Like the Huskies are now, the Bulldogs entered that game with a perfect record.
One problem South Carolina hasn't solved, however, is Huskies senior Gabby Williams.
In a UConn system that rarely turns any one job over to a single player, Williams has been Wilson's primary nemesis, drawing that defensive assignment and flourishing.
"Gabby is so athletic. She can jump out of the gym and is pretty much as quick as lightning," Wilson said. "She is really tough, but if we execute the way we need to, we should be fine."
Williams' versatility and adaptability are a big reason for UConn's 71-1 record the past two seasons. On Saturday against Duke, she spent a portion of the afternoon switching onto the Blue Devils' bevy of guards that includes all-conference performers Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell. Monday, the 5-11 Williams will once again draw the primary responsibility of containing Wilson.
"It's always difficult guarding A'ja, especially with the height difference," Williams said. "But I have the advantage of being quicker, so as long as I keep her out of the paint, it is easier to handle her."