No. 9 South Carolina getting healthier with Wilson’s return
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina is getting healthier — and at exactly the right time for the defending national champions.
The ninth-ranked Gamecocks (16-3, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) have been snake-bit by injuries at times this season, including earlier this month when All-American forward A’ja Wilson missed two games — including an 86-70 loss to No. 10 Tennessee on Jan. 14 — with a sprained right ankle.
South Carolina got a big lift last week when Wilson, who had worn a pink cast and rode a scooter to keep the ankle off the ground, stepped back on the court against Kentucky last Sunday and had 26 points and eight rebounds off the bench for a much needed victory.
Wilson will regain her starting spot Thursday night when the Gamecocks play middle-of-the-pack Arkansas (11-9, 2-5). After that, South Carolina’s opponents ratchet up significantly the next three games: at home against No. 11 Missouri and No. 1 UConn, and then at SEC leader Mississippi State.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley wasn’t sure how strongly Wilson would respond against Kentucky, given the tenderness of her ankle just a few days earlier.
“Sometimes the games are a little bit harder,” Staley said. “You don’t move as quickly in practice. It was good to see how she played the first couple of minutes under her belt. Once she was playing so well and feeling so good, we extended the minutes.”
Wilson leads the SEC and is fifth nationally at 23.9 points a game. She’s third in the SEC with 10.9 rebounds a game.
While Wilson is certainly the most important, she was not the only South Carolina bothered by injury.
Starting point guard Tyasha Harris, who leads the SEC in assists, rolled her ankle badly against Vanderbilt a week ago before returning against Kentucky. Mikiah Herbert-Harrigan, a 6-foot-2 sophomore, was Wilson’s replacement when the two-time defending SEC player of the year could not go against Tennessee, hurt her knee in that game and has not played since.
Penn State graduate transfer Lindsey Spann, brought in to provide leadership and 3-point shooting, continues her problems with a knee injury. She missed five games earlier in the season and left early against Vanderbilt last week with similar problems. Spann missed the Kentucky game and Staley said she’s likely to miss the next two contests before getting the green light to play.
Injuries are part of the game, Staley said. “You just have to prep the other players, not to have them do what you’re missing, just to do what they can do. Play to their strengths,” Staley said.
That was case at Vanderbilt last week when Alexis Jennings, the Kentucky transfer, had 27 points and 11 rebounds minus Wilson. Freshman forward LeLe Grissett added a career high 22 points in the win.
Harris said having Wilson back is critical for a team looking for its fifth straight SEC regular-season title. “When she’s there, we’ve got the flow going,” she said. “It really helps us.”
The Gamecocks will need everyone they can round up to play during this stretch, starting Sunday against Missouri.
Missouri has won its past two games against South Carolina, including an 83-74 win on Jan. 7 where the Tigers’ physical style got the better of Wilson, who fouled out with eight points, and Staley, who was ejected from the game and later contacted the SEC about her officiating concerns from that game.
The undefeated Huskies come to Colonial Life Arena on Feb. 1. It’s the fourth straight year the national title programs have faced each other with UConn taking the first three, all by double digits.
After that comes the visit to No. 2 Mississippi State, a team that surely as a score to settle after going 0-3 against the Gamecocks last season. Following a drama-filled 64-61 South Carolina win in the regular season over the then-undefeated Bulldogs, the Gamecocks topped Mississippi State to win both the SEC and NCAA tournaments .
“We’re ready to rock and roll,” Harris said.