Columbia - A'ja Wilson's voice was low and seemingly solemn when she called South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley. Staley responded with a nervous "hey," unsure of what Wilson would say next.
"I'm going to be joining you in the fall at the University of South Carolina," the No. 1 women's basketball recruit told Staley confidently.
It's been four months since Wilson narrowed down her long list of college choices to four - South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and defending national champions Connecticut. She waited to call Staley less than an hour before she announced her decision to the world on ESPNU.
Staley's reaction was screaming. And then Wilson heard other people screaming with Staley. She tried to say something else to Staley but couldn't get a word in with the celebrating that was going on the other end.
"Her voice sounded so somber and dejected, I wasn't really prepared to hear that she was coming," Staley said. "I know our office was louder than Heathwood Hall today. She was holding the phone for five minutes while we screamed at the top of our lungs and just jumped around."
The South Carolina native got a similar reaction from family, friends and classmates when she made her announcement at the Heathwood Hall Episcopal School gym in Columbia. The auditorium full of students holding white thundersticks and wooden sticks with Wilson's face on it erupted before she could finish saying "South Carolina."
"They're on the rise, and I would just love to be a part of it," Wilson said. "Coach Staley has just done such a great job turning the program around. I just thought that was my best fit."
The 6-4 forward averaged 35 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks per game in her senior season. Wilson was a McDonald's All-American and named the girls' basketball player of the year by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association and Parade Magazine. She is the first player from South Carolina to win the Naismith Trophy for the best girls' basketball player in the country.
"To have someone like A'ja in your backyard, I don't think any other school can recruit her or has recruited her any harder," Staley said. "They can try to see her seven times, they can try to get her on their campus, but we made that happen. . I think we put A'ja in a position where saying no to us would be very uncomfortable."
Wilson's addition to the Gamecocks makes the recruiting class No. 2 in the country, according to ESPN, and it will make expectations high for Staley next season. A No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament last month, the Gamecocks are losing only one senior from last year's team. USC signed three five-star players - Jatarie White, Kaydra Duckett and Bianca Cuevas - before Wilson's announcement.
All five starters from last year's team will be returning, including SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell. Staley said some sacrifices will have to be made on the team to make room for the talented newcomers. Some veterans are expected to have less playing time.
On Wilson's official visit with the Gamecocks, fans chanted her name in an attempt to woo her. Wilson remembers when there weren't fans in Colonial Life to cheer, and Staley's revival of the program was a big factor in the decision. Wilson said her goal for her time as a Gamecock is to win the national championship, and Staley echoed that.
"I watched Coach Staley when she first got here, when there was no one in the stands," Wilson said. "Winning the big stuff is great, but seeing those little things, that's what counts the most to me."
On Tuesday night, she sat down with her parents, discussed her thought process with them, and then they prayed about her choice as a family. Her mother, Eva Wilson, made spreadsheets outlining the pros and cons of every program as they met with coaches and took visits. Her father, Roscoe Wilson, said he didn't know A'ja's final decision until 15 minutes before she called Staley.
Heathwood Hall coach John O'Cain said he thought Wilson ultimately wanted to stay close to home, but Roscoe Wilson said geography wasn't a big factor in A'ja's decision. He and Eva Wilson would've flown anywhere to see her play, and they said they didn't try to influence her to pick the closest program.
"It was all about where A'ja fit in and where she was comfortable," Eva Wilson said. "When she goes off to college, it's not like she's going to be seeing me everyday. . It was definitely her choice, and she had to feel it."
Surrounded by the family and friends Wilson's grown up around, she put a neon T-shirt over her emerald Heathwood Hall shirt. A South Carolina logo across her chest, it read, 'There's no place like home."
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