NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- You say the names to South Carolina's A'ja Wilson, and she nods with respect. Names such as Georgia's Katrina McClain, Tennessee's Chamique Holdsclaw, LSU's Seimone Augustus and so many more, all great players in SEC women's basketball history. But Wilson now has something none of the legends before her got: four consecutive SEC tournament titles.
"Not in a million years would I have thought a skinny, little 13-year-old who didn't want to play basketball is now a four-time champ in the SEC," said Wilson after the No. 2 seed Gamecocks' 62-51 victory over top-seeded and previously unbeaten Mississippi State in the SEC final Sunday. "The list of names ... it's crazy that now I'm on that list. But it's great; it gives the younger ones something to look up to: 'Hey, you can do this, too.'"
Maybe. But it's hard to believe too many more players the level of Wilson will be coming through South Carolina or anywhere else. Because it's not just that she has played so well as a senior on her way to being (almost certainly) the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft; it's that she has risen to the occasion since she first stepped on the court for her hometown college, which she helped lead to the national championship last year.
Sunday's 16-point, 8-rebound performance came a week after Wilson missed the Gamecocks' regular-season finale loss at Tennessee while dealing with vertigo. She came off the bench all three games here in Nashville but was named SEC tournament MVP for the second time. Wilson had 24 points and 12 rebounds in South Carolina's quarterfinal victory over Tennessee, and 21 and 11 in the semifinal win against Georgia.
Yes, Wilson was once the thin adolescent more interested in dancing, reading and having fun with her friends than playing basketball. But even as she agonized at wearing a weighted vest while doing the Mikan drill under the tutelage of her father, Roscoe Wilson Jr., there was something in her that wouldn't give up. Something that made her realize that greatness was in her future, even if there were days when basketball seemed more burden than blessing.
Roscoe played professionally for a decade and could see the potential in his daughter. He was right, and she is grateful to him for the push when she needed it. This weekend at the SEC tournament, A'ja became South Carolina's all-time leading scorer; she now has 2,298 points. Last week, she became the first to win SEC player of the year for a third time.
"To me, she's the GOAT," said Wilson's teammate Tyasha Harris. "She can score from anywhere, she's a leader off and on the floor. I'm just happy to have her on my team. We shared a moment after the game, where we just cried and said, 'I love you,' because it was an amazing moment to make history with her."
South Carolina is the first SEC program to win four tournament titles in a row. Tennessee has won 17 overall but never more than three in a row, which the Lady Vols did twice.
"I just thought our kids were engaged and locked into the game plan, and they did not want to lose," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "They wanted to create their own history."
Mississippi State was seeking its first SEC tournament title after winning the regular-season SEC championship and becoming the first women's team at the school to claim a league title. The Bulldogs sold out their regular-season game against South Carolina, winning 67-53 on Feb. 5, and the fan support has traveled well, too. The biggest portion of the crowd of 8,819 at Bridgestone Arena on Sunday was dressed in Mississippi State maroon.
But the Bulldogs, who lost the past two SEC tournament finals and last year's NCAA championship game to the Gamecocks, just were not sharp from the start. Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer and his players talked Saturday about being concerned with not playing well in the first quarter, and that happened again Sunday.
It was worse this time, though, because it carried over into a dreadful second quarter in which the Bulldogs scored just five points. Center Teaira McCowan got into early foul trouble and played just four minutes in the first half, after which the Bulldogs trailed 30-19. Schaefer was asked if he considered putting McCowan back in during the second quarter as South Carolina extended its lead and the Bulldogs' offense was sputtering.
"I thought about it, [but] I thought, 'We're going to be all right,'" Schaefer said. "We had protected her and got through the first half."
McCowan added, "I just wanted to come back out and dominate in the second half. Foul trouble is part of the game, so it wasn't too much worried about it."
Indeed, down 11 with 20 minutes to go might not have seemed too high a mountain to climb for a Mississippi State team that came in averaging 83 points per game and had beaten every SEC opponent but one this season by double digits. But Sunday, the offense never got on track.
The Bulldogs finished with their lowest point total of the season. They shot 34.5 percent from the field and 15.8 percent (3-of-19) from behind the arc.
"It's not a good feeling," said Mississippi State senior Victoria Vivians, who led the Bulldogs with 17 points. "But I'm glad it's not the NCAA [tournament], when it's the end of a career."
Mississippi State, which has lost 12 of its past 13 to South Carolina, still seems sure to get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. As for the Gamecocks' NCAA fate, Staley didn't try to lobby the committee; Charlie Creme has projected the Gamecocks as a No. 2 seed in the Albany Regional behind overall No. 1 seed UConn as recently as Saturday.
"What we did was control our own destiny," Staley said. "Then it's obviously in somebody else's hands to decide where we go."
Staley, like her program, entered the record books by becoming the first SEC women's coach to win four tourney titles in a row. The great coaches of this conference -- led by Tennessee's Pat Summitt -- is also a very impressive list.
"She deserves everything that's coming her way, and she's earned it," Wilson said of Staley. "That's why I committed here. She connects with her players, and we know we can trust her. For her to get in the history books, as well, is great. I'm just glad I was along for the journey with her to do this."