Gamecocks’ A’ja Wilson feeling no pressure, and opponents are feeling the pain

Sophomore forward A'ja Wilson leads No. 2 South Carolina in scoring, rebounding, blocks and field-goal percentage entering Sunday's game against No. 14 Duke. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)

COLUMBIA — For A’ja Wilson, it’s not a matter of making shots. It’s a matter of letting go.

“I’m not really pressuring myself to do a lot of things, and my coaches and teammates are helping me not put a lot of pressure on myself,” said South Carolina’s sophomore forward. “I feel like I’m just opening up, being that sponge again like I was last year, but letting the game come to me and not forcing anything.”

It certainly seems to be working. Wilson is playing the best basketball of her career heading into Sunday’s 2 p.m. showdown between second-ranked South Carolina and No. 14 Duke. The sophomore has scored 18 or more points in her last three outings, and in five of seven appearances this season, and is fast becoming the dominant player head coach Dawn Staley believes she can be.

Wilson leads USC (7-0) in scoring at 17 points per game, in rebounding at nine boards per outing, and in shooting at 54 percent. One year after hitting the buzzer-beater to down Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, she faces the Blue Devils (7-1) this time as one of the more complete players in the SEC.

“She’s playing her best basketball. Right now,” Staley said. “Hopefully it isn’t her best (ever), but as far as in a Gamecocks uniform, stat-wise, she’s a stat-filler. But from a defensive standpoint, I’m proud of the progress she is making. We know she can score the ball, we know she can rebound the ball. It’s just the defense has always been in question night and night out, but she’s slowly getting that part of it.”

USC lost three of its better defenders after last season’s Final Four run, when it said goodbye to departing seniors Elem Ibiam, Olivia Gaines, and Aleighsa Welch, the latter an honorable mention All-American from Goose Creek. Wilson has helped fill that void, with an SEC-best 22 blocks and a team-high 43 defensive rebounds.

“She’s playing like she understands what we want. Last year, we were speaking Chinese to her,” Staley said. “This year, she understands how to make an impact on both sides. She understands how to get easy scores. She’s understanding that she’s got to play on the other side of the ball and play a little defense for us.”

It’s hard to ignore Wilson’s scoring, though, particularly given that she leads the SEC with four double-doubles and has twice been named league player of the week. The points haven’t been just abundant, but timely — she scored 12 of her 20 against Ohio State in the fourth quarter, used a late flurry to help push the Gamecocks past UCLA, and hit two free throws with a fraction of a second left to beat Arizona State.

Indeed, no pressure.

“I’m letting the game come to me,” Wilson said. “I think that’s the biggest thing, letting it come to you, really, and not forcing anything. It’s been in my favor, it’s been in the team’s favor, so hopefully nothing changes and I can keep doing what I’m doing.”