On Saturday, Gamecocks senior forward A’Ja Wilson was named the Preseason Player of the Year by espnW. Coach Dawn Staley, when asked whom the 6-foot-5 Wilson, the two-time Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, could model herself after, answered seriously: “Probably Lisa Leslie.”
South Carolina had a Hall of Famer-in-training. Maryland had no one taller than 6-3. The Gamecocks had the most talented player returning from their national championship team. The Terps, throughout all but the end of their 94-86 loss at Xfinity Center, had a problem.
In one of the most dominant performances by an opposing player in coach Brenda Frese’s tenure, Wilson finished with a career-high 32 points on 10-for-19 shooting, along with 12 rebounds and four blocks. She hit fadeaway jumpers and tough layups, made passes to wide-open shooters and deflected Maryland’s attempts at the same. She was the biggest player the moment she stepped on the court, yet somehow also regularly the quickest to the ball.
“She’s a woman amongst girls,” Frese said of Wilson, who was not old enough to join three teammates from last season’s team in the WNBA. “She should be in the pros. She’s just that talented.”
With Wilson’s dominance and the Terps’ porous defense — South Carolina (2-0) had 51 points at halftime — the Gamecocks seemed to default to cruise control for much of the evening before an announced 8,677.
That was as all the invitation Kaila Charles needed. The Terps’ sophomore wing, in a get-to-know-me performance on national television, finished with 31 points (including 27 in the second half) and 10 rebounds. If there were any questions as to who would become the face of the program in the era after Brionna Jones (Aberdeen), Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Destiny Slocum, Charles answered them resoundingly. And if there were any doubts about whether the Terps could come back from as many as 26 points down in the third quarter, she addressed those, too.
As the visitors started to struggle from the free-throw line and with defending dribble drives, Maryland (1-1) made its move. Trimming a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit to six took less than five minutes. With 38 seconds remaining, freshman Channise Lewis hit a driving layup to make it 87-84, enough time for Maryland to challenge on defense and have a shot at forcing overtime.
But South Carolina guard Tyasha Harris cut through the Terps’ pressure and, fighting through a foul from sophomore wing Blair Watson, answered with an off-balance layup, converting the and-one. That was it for the Terps’ chances in their first big nonconference test of the week. (Next up: No. 1 Connecticut on Sunday.)
“I loved the fight of our team,” Frese said. “I thought our chemistry really came together late in the third quarter, and then I thought I saw a true picture of our team in the fourth quarter when we kind of settled in and got back to playing Maryland basketball.”
South Carolina had made its intentions known from the opening tip, which Wilson, dwarfing Charles at the center circle, might not have needed to jump for to win. Swinging the ball around and over the top of a 2-3 zone designed to stop entry passes to Wilson, the Gamecocks scored their first nine points from beyond the arc. The other end was an adventure for the Terps, too. Three minutes in, they were averaging a point and a turnover a minute and trailing 13-3.
South Carolina did not seem to sacrifice size for speed, either. Off a missed free throw by forward Brianna Fraser, one of three Terps to foul out in the game, the Gamecocks beat the Terps back to their own basket, and a short jumper by forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan extended South Carolina’s lead to 21-7. At the end of the first quarter, with the chance to hold the ball for the last shot, wing Ieshia Small took a contested long jumper. Guard Lindsey Spann collected the rebound and went end to end for a buzzer-beating layup.
“We dug ourselves into too big of a hole,” Frese said.
Maryland’s frustration mounted as the Gamecocks pushed their first-half lead to as many as 19 points. The Terps drew to within eight, 34-26, after a 3-pointer by Watson and pair of free throws by sophomore guard Sarah Myers, but there was only so much they could do. On one play, Charles, the daughter of an Olympic sprinter, could not drive past Wilson, so she stopped for a step-back jumper. Wilson blocked that.
“We were trying to do everything we can to limit her touches,” Charles said, but even Wilson’s mere presence seemed to baffle and agitate defenders. Small, all 6 feet of her, found herself in the middle of the Terps’ interior defense at times, trying to front Wilson. It did not go well. Later, after officials called a foul on forward Stephanie Jones (Aberdeen) for trying to dislodge Wilson from the paint, Jones raised her hands in helplessness, as if to ask, “What else am I supposed to do”? Then she had to watch Wilson hit two free throws.