COLUMBIA, S.C. — A’ja Wilson said she had one thing on her mind as she took the court after a nearly minute-long ovation on an emotional senior night.
It wasn’t rebounds, even though she had a career-high 24 boards Thursday night in No. 7 South Carolina’s 57-48 win over No 24 LSU.
And it wasn’t the 27 points that made her the first Gamecocks player with a 20-20 since Shelia Foster in 1981.
“My first thought coming out was I hope my mascara wasn’t running. So it was not the boards at all,” Wilson said, laughing.
With the crowd, including South Carolina’s athletics director and president decked out in fake pearls to honor Wilson’s favorite thing to wear off the court, Wilson turned in one of her most dominant performances in her final regular season home game.
The 6-foot-5 senior scored the first seven points of the game as the Gamecocks (23-5, 12-3 Southeastern Conference) never trailed.
LSU (18-8, 10-5) kept the score close for most of the game. When the Tigers cut it to a single possession for the final time at 30-28 in the third quarter, Wilson scored on three of the next four possessions — and had an assist on another — to give South Carolina a 38-28 lead.
The crowd chanted her name after coach Dawn Staley called a timeout to take her out of the game with 27.6 seconds left.
Raigyne Louis had 17 points and eight rebounds and Chole Jackson added 16 points for LSU
The Tigers scored 22 points off 14 turnovers and only gave away the ball five times, but they couldn’t overcome 32.8 percent (22-of-67) shooting from the field, which included missing seven of 17 layups.
“You can’t miss seven layups,” LSU coach Nikki Fargas said. “I think we were really worried about Wilson’s shot blocking ability.”
Staley said she didn’t shed any tears Thursday night. The Gamecocks still have an SEC Tournament and a national title to play for. But the Philadelphia-tough coach said she can’t guarantee her eyes will stay dry.
“I’m probably going to cry next year when we don’t have her,” Staley said.
TURNING IT OVER
One thing will stand out as opposing coaches watch film — the South Carolina guards struggled with pressure, especially in the backcourt. Eight times LSU stole the ball from the guards and got fast break layups.
“There were spurts there where defensively, we tried to pick up full court, but it’s difficult when you’re not scoring the basketball,” Fargas said.
Wilson’s grandmother gave her a set of pearls when she was about 10, telling her granddaughter “a pretty girl always wears her pearls.”
Wilson’s pearls are now her signature off-court accessory. And Thursday night, nearly everyone was wearing them, even Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin as he gave her the key to the city. Most of her teammates were wearing pearls as the starting lineups were announced.
“I felt my grandmother’s spirit in the arena,” Wilson said. “It was great.”
LSU: The Tigers were playing their first game as a ranked team in four years. LSU can finish as high as third or as low as seventh in the SEC. The Tigers had only been held under 10 points in eight total quarters all season before Thursday night. LSU scored just eight in the first quarter and seven in the third quarter against South Carolina.
South Carolina: This probably won’t be Wilson’s last home game. South Carolina was projected a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament seed earlier this week and would get to host the first two tournament games The Gamecocks assured themselves a double-bye with a top four seed in the SEC tournament with the win. Wilson has led her team in scoring in 18 of the 26 games she has played this season. Wilson is now 30 points away from breaking Shelia Foster’s school record of 2,266 points.
LSU: Hosts Alabama on Sunday to finish the regular season.
South Carolina: Ends the regular season Sunday at No. 15 Tennessee