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Wilson right at home with Gamecocks

The fact that A'ja Wilson didn't have to look far to find her college destination didn't mean that she didn't look hard. She explored different options, and waited until last April to announce her decision.

And when the hometown kid said she was staying with the hometown school, the rest of the country could almost hear the cheers of happiness mixed with relief coming from Columbia, South Carolina.

Some things are meant to be. Like Wilson playing for the Gamecocks. She's from Hopkins, South Carolina, just outside the state capital city, and went to Heathwood Hall in Columbia. As she prepares for her first NCAA tournament for South Carolina, the No. 1 seed in the Greensboro Regional, Wilson knows she's right where she's supposed to be.

"Sometimes, I think, 'Oh, I want to get away for a while, but of course, that's the teenager in me,'" Wilson said, laughing. "But at the same time, looking at the big picture, I don't think I could find a better group of girls than the ones who are here.

"And the fact that it's in my backyard makes it 10 times better, knowing my family and friends can always come support me. I think it was a terrific choice to come here."

Wilson is part of what appears to be a very strong freshman class in NCAA women's basketball, and several of the rookie standouts could play large roles in their first Big Dance. Some, like Wilson, stayed in their home states for college, including Ohio State's Kelsey Mitchell, Duke's Azura Stevens, and Mississippi State's Victoria Vivians.

Others -- such as Louisville's Mariya Moore, who's from California -- opted to go a long way from home. All of them, though, are now poised to experience the NCAA's version of March Madness and see how they can make their mark. They've all done quite a lot already this season.

Wilson has started just one game on a deep South Carolina team, but her role has been to provide instant impact off the bench. Which she has done: Wilson is second on the team in scoring (13.3 PPG) and rebounding (6.8 RPG), and is South Carolina's leading shot blocker (58).

After an SEC tournament victory over Arkansas in which the Gamecocks blocked 15 shots -- four of them by Wilson -- South Carolina forward Aleighsa Welch was asked to rate the team's most gifted swatter.

"I'd say the toughest one to beat is A'ja because she's probably the quickest," said Welch, who has 36 blocks herself this season. "You might get a first step and think you have a wide-open layup, and then there she comes. Then she blocks it, takes it and dribbles up the court. And you're just like, 'Whoa.'"

Wilson is an example of a type of player that is growing in number in women's hoops: The post player with guard skills and agility. The 6-foot-5 Wilson is comfortable all over the court. She can get the fast break going, and she can finish it. Every game, Wilson has at least one moment -- and sometimes several -- when you marvel at her powerful athleticism combined with her grace, and how easy she can make something difficult look.

At the same time, Wilson will be the first to tell you that she's still just starting her basketball education. And she delightfully still has that fresh, breezy, funny enthusiasm of a teen. Wilson adores her pearl necklace and other jewelry, and one of the first things she does after games is don some accessories.

Sometimes even before taking off her uniform.

"If I need to do interviews," Wilson said, "I always ask if I can put my jewelry on first."

Then Wilson cracks up seeing South Carolina media relations director Diana Koval, who is standing nearby and jokingly rolls her eyes at Wilson's jewelry obsession.

"That's always her reaction before we do interviews," Wilson said, laughing. "But I just love it. And when I'm playing and don't have it on, I feel weird."

It will sound corny to say Wilson is the pearl that coach Dawn Staley picked up without having to go anywhere to find it, but she is. From a geographic standpoint, that is. However, it was the six seasons of program-building by Staley and her staff -- getting the Gamecocks to an NCAA No. 1 seed last season during Wilson's senior year of high school -- that made South Carolina a place that the star recruit couldn't pass up.

Wilson knew the expectations were huge for her, but that nothing actually was guaranteed without her working for it.

"There's been times when it's been a struggle and difficult -- those games when you're not 'you,' and have to get a feel for it," Wilson said. "It has been tough in that every day brings something new, but it's also been a lot of fun and a lot of learning.

"I came in with a really open mind to be a sponge and absorb it all. I think I've done a pretty good job of it, although sometimes I kind of get stuck in that freshman stage of, 'OK, I don't know what I'm doing,' and it's kind of shaky. But my teammates, the veterans especially, get me back into it."

In particular, post players such as seniors Welch and Elem Ibiam, who start, and sophomore Alaina Coates, a reserve along with Wilson, have helped the freshman figure out a lot of things. Including how to deal with the physical nature of play at this level.

"It helps me adjust because I know they have my back and they understand what I'm going through," Wilson said. "They've been through it, and they're going to be there for me."

Wilson said that while the competitor in her wants to start -- "like any player does" -- she understands why she has come off the bench and thinks that has been to her benefit.

She watches Welch, in particular, to get cues on how to attack what the opposing defense is doing. As the season has gone along, Wilson has become more confident in reading what's available and how to take advantage of it.

"It's been a cool process to watch, because you've seen the good, the bad and the ugly of the transformation that every freshman goes through," Welch said of Wilson. "From when she stepped up big and got the game-winning shot in the Duke game, to when she kind of struggled in the middle of the SEC season, to games when she just went on a tear for us.

"She brings a different dynamic, and I think she's starting to understand that. She's being aggressive and doing what we need her to do. Over the course of the season, she's growing up before our eyes."

The Duke game Welch referred to was Wilson's first signature moment with South Carolina, as her putback just before the buzzer secured a 51-50 victory in Durham, North Carolina, on Dec. 7. Meanwhile back home at Colonial Life Arena all during this season, whenever Wilson enters the game -- especially for the first time -- you hear the special roar that the crowd provides for her.

Often, though, she's so deep into concentration mode that she doesn't hear it. When she does, it reminds her how fortunate she is to be in this place at this time.

"I don't think it's pressure, it's more a lot of fun," Wilson said of being a local favorite. "It's been what I hoped for and more. God has blessed me to have this opportunity to come to such a great program with such great teammates, and still be 'home.'"