COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - It was a sweet sendoff for A'ja Wilson.
In her final game at Colonial Life Arena, the senior forward had 25 points and 11 rebounds and South Carolina advanced to the Sweet 16 with a 66-56 win over Virginia.
"The North Carolina A&T game really helped us focus and kind of get back on track with things," Wilson said. "That's what it took. We did the 24-hour rule. We can't down ourselves all the time so we kind of turned the page and refocused ourselves and just came together as one and got the win today."
Early on, the battle between the two teams went back and forth, but it was A'ja Wilson again leading the Gamecocks. Wilson put up six points in the opening period to help Carolina take a 15-12 lead.
The No. 2 seed would eventually take a six-point lead early in the second, but Virginia would respond. The Cavaliers put together a brief 7-0 run to go ahead 20-19 with 3:58 left. The Virginia lead, however, was shortlived as Wilson scored seven of the Gamecocks' last 11 points of the quarter to push the defending champions ahead 30-25 at the break.
Wilson led all players with 13 points and eight rebounds at halftime.
"She's unbelievably talented," Virginia head coach Joanne Boyle said. "I mean, she can do it all. She's like a point forward. She brings the ball down the floor. Tonight, we didn't have an answer for the kind of stepback little eight-footer. (Felicia Aiyeotan) can block shots on the block, but she took her out a little bit and she hit a couple of them down there. We tried to crowd her as best we could. I thought we were late to some of that stuff. We got in early foul trouble and really changed what we were doing. We tried to mix up as much defense as we could to just keep them off balance. To me, she's the best player in the country. We haven't played against everybody so I'm just talking about the people we played against, but she's a talent."
The Wooden Trophy finalist continued to put her fingerprints all over the game. In the third, Wilson helped the Gamecocks extend their lead 42-30 by finding Alexis Jennings as the defense collapsed around her in the paint. Jennings cashed in on her opportunities scoring six third-quarter points. Carolina would ultimately finish the quarter with a 46-40 lead.
"Alexis is a huge force on the inside," Wilson said. "Her footwork is crazy. It's great. For her to find the open spaces, especially when people are collapsing on me, it's always great to have your partner open in that way. You know, you can trust your partner and pass it to her. That's what I saw. I saw they were all collapsing on me and I knew I could dish it off to her and she would get the bucket. Alexis is always a player you'd want on your team because she makes it so much easier on you when you're being double teamed or whatever. Definitely glad to have a player like her."
Virginia would cut the lead to 46-43 to open the quarter, but the Gamecocks would hold the Cavaliers to under 22 percent shooting from the floor in the final quarter.
As for Wilson, she ended the night with 25 points and 11 rebounds in her final 34 minutes of play at Colonial Life Arena. She was one of four Gamecocks to end the contest in double figures. Freshman Bianca Jackson had 13 in the win while Tyasha Harris and Jennings each contributed 10 points.
"We feel good," Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley said. "We feel good about just being where we are. We don't talk about what we don't have. We just concentrate on the players that we have that's healthy, that can help us continue to advance. So, I'm proud of this team because we have three people that haven't started in a college game and they play a lot of minutes and they got us back to the Sweet 16. So it's kind of a great accomplishment."
South Carolina will now head to Albany, N.Y., for the next round. They will face Buffalo on Saturday at Times Union Arena. Tip-off time for that game has not been announced.