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South Carolina forward A'ja Wilson leads US squad to another international title, gold medal

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Another summer, another international title for Southeastern Conference freshman of the year A'ja Wilson.

Wilson, who led the United States to the U18 FIBA Americas crown last summer, turned in another stellar performance during America's run to gold at the FIBA U19 World Championships earlier this month.

"It was a great experience," Wilson said. "I had a great time. I was trying to look for any English (signs) or mall, read anything I could."

The 6-foot-5 Wilson looked her most comfortable on the court where she set a U.S. record with 30 points in a 78-70 win over host-country Russia in the championship game this past Sunday. Wilson was named tournament MVP, averaging better than 22 points and eight rebounds as the Americans went 6-0 on the way to the title.

A year ago, Wilson was the centerpiece of the American team that swept to the FIBA Americas U18 championship. She was MVP of that one, too.

Wilson said she's found a comfort level and consistency competing in international events that she brings back to college.

"It's helped me with my overall game, like the physicality is kind of different," said Wilson, flashing her gold medal to whoever asked to see it. "There's a bunch of styles where one team might only run screens, one team might spread out, might run, so it really helps me with the differences. It helps me learn."

The event took a physical toll on Wilson. She limped into the South Carolina practice facility Thursday with a walking boot on her left foot to protect an ankle she sprained in Russia. Wilson, who played through the injury in the tournament, said she must wear it two weeks and that it won't be a factor come fall workouts or next season.

What will affect Wilson this winter is the role she played as captain of the U19 team, partly for her skill and partly because of her firsthand knowledge of the U.S. coach, South Carolina's Dawn Staley.

Wilson said teammates were always asking why Staley yelled so much. That's when Wilson calmed them down and pointed out it was Staley's way and nothing personal.

"That's how she gets her points across," Wilson told them. "She's OK."

Wilson found it taxing at times to lead on the court while still trying to get baskets. Staley leaned heavily on her all-SEC freshman to make sure the plays were executed correctly.

"It's not easy running up and down the court having to talk, that is exhausting, and try and put the ball in the basket," Wilson said. "It really taught me to become a leader."

Wilson might get to use some of those qualities this fall. The Gamecocks lose two front-court starters in Aleighsa Welch and Elem Ibiam off their Final Four team from last season and Wilson should fill one of those spots after coming off the bench most of 2014-15.

"I still have a lot of learning to do," Wilson said. "Here, the girls above me know more than me so I'm just going to take it all in, be a sponge and absorb it all so when the time comes for me to be that leader, to be that step-up person, I already know and understand."

Wilson should have help on the front line from Alaina Coates, a 6-4 junior who was named second team all-SEC a year ago, and Virginia transfer Sarah Imobvioh, a graduate student who led the Atlantic Coast Conference with 10.8 rebounds last season.

And, of course, the South Carolina backcourt features two-time SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell.

Wilson said her overseas play gives her confidence she can add to another big year for South Carolina.

"I love having those weapons around me," she said. "Other teams know they just can't stop one person, you have multiple people. I'm blessed to be in this situation."

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