ALBANY — One of the greatest NCAA women’s basketball careers in recent memory is set to either close at Times Union Center or add one of the few accomplishments that has eluded it.
Those are the stakes for South Carolina senior A’ja Wilson when the Albany Regional championship game tips off at 7 p.m. Monday.
“She’s by far the best player in the country,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said Saturday of her 6-foot-5 star.
There is no real argument about that. Wilson’s credentials speak for themselves.
She won a national championship last year.
She is the three-time reigning SEC Player of the Year, and the consensus national player of the year this season.
She is already a two-time first-team All-American, and will become a three-time honoree when this season is complete.
But . . . she hasn’t beaten UConn, South Carolina’s Elite Eight opponent in Albany.
Wilson — a Hopkins, S.C., native who picked South Carolina over UConn as a high school senior — has had plenty of chances to top the Huskies, too. During Wilson’s career, South Carolina is 0-4 against UConn. Wilson’s averaged 13.5 points and 8.3 rebounds in those losses, and produced 14 points and 16 rebounds in South Carolina’s 83-58 loss to UConn earlier this season.
Overall this season, Wilson has averaged 22.5 points and 12.0 rebounds. In Saturday’s Sweet 16 win against Buffalo, she struggled shooting, but her energy and hustle still produced a double-double with 20 points and 13 rebounds.
“That’s my role on this team, and I try to embrace it anyway I can,” Wilson said of maintaining her energy level despite shooting 7 of 16.
South Carolina (No. 2, 29-6), of course, will need more than just energy from Wilson if it is going to take down a UConn (No. 1, 35-0) team it avoided in last year’s NCAAs on its way to a national title. South Carolina won last year’s championship game 67-55 against Mississippi State, two days after Mississippi State ended UConn’s 111-game winning streak in the Final Four with a buzzer-beater in overtime.
When UConn and South Carolina did meet earlier this season, the Huskies blew out the Gamecocks. Forget the final score: UConn led 53-24 at halftime.
“The last time we played them, we kind of got out to a really early run,” UConn senior Gabby Williams said. “I don’t think any of us are expecting it to be that easy [in the Elite Eight]. We know they’re going to put up a fight. They don’t — [Wilson] doesn’t want her career to be over, [her] college career to be over on Monday. We know they’re going to put up a fight, and it’s going to be a battle.”
Duke redshirt senior Lexie Brown — whose team fell in Saturday’s Sweet 16 to UConn — pointed to the motivation Wilson brings into her latest matchup with UConn as reason to believe South Carolina can topple the most dominant dynasty in the sport’s history.
“A’ja is probably one of the most competitive players that I’ve ever played against and I’ve watched,” Brown said, “and I think she can carry that team. They feed off her energy — and she’s a super-energetic player.”
In the NCAA tournament, Wilson hasn’t played her best game to this point. Her numbers are still incredible — 21.3 points and 13.3 rebounds — but is shooting 43.8 percent from the field.
“This whole tournament, I’ve really been inside my head a lot. . . . I feel like I’m defending myself and I’m blocking shots of my own and that’s really not good,” Wilson said. “It’s going to come. It’s going to click.”
And it needs to against UConn for Wilson to extend her career. The Gamecocks know that.
“But,” Staley said, “I’m hoping sooner or later — Monday night — she gets back to playing like A’ja Wilson.”