A’ja Wilson, homegrown hero, shines in Columbia once again in WNBA preseason game

A’ja Wilson made her way toward the back left of the home team locker room at Colonial Life Arena.

She stopped at the cubby that held her belongings for four years and set down her things. How surreal it was, to be back home after six years away. She noted the new lounge and the fresh coat of paint.

Whether she thought about how her time in a South Carolina women’s basketball uniform made those renovations possible is unclear. But it undoubtedly had an impact. When Wilson made the decision to stay home and become a Gamecock, she set off a chain of events that would change the program, the sport and the Palmetto State forever.

Wilson returned home to Columbia this weekend for a preseason exhibition game ahead of her seventh WNBA season.

“This is something that’s truly special. Something that we all built. ... God has truly blessed me to be able to play on this court one more time,” she said in an emotional farewell address to a crowd of 13,507 fans. “This means the world to me.”

She and the Las Vegas Aces defeated the Puerto Rican National Team 102-50 Saturday at Colonial Life Arena. It marked the first time Wilson played a basketball game at CLA since 2018.

When announced as a starter over the arena’s PA system, Wilson was greeted by a partial standing ovation. Among the thousands of enthusiastic spectators in attendance, many have watched her — in person and, since she moved to Las Vegas six years ago, from afar — since preschool. Through her brief stints as a dancer and a volleyball player in her youth and, of course, her legendary basketball career.

“I got chills,” Wilson said after the game, her nose still red after the aforementioned tearful goodbye. “It just didn’t feel real. It felt like I was in a movie, honestly.”

She had 27 points (10-of-15 from the field), 14 rebounds and two assists in just under 23 minutes. It marked the second-highest-scoring game she ever played on USC’s home court (behind a 34-point performance for the Gamecocks in 2017).

Wilson is the most decorated athlete to ever don garnet and black. She helped South Carolina reach two Final Fours and win its first national championship in 2017 — earning Most Outstanding Player along the way. She was also the program’s first consensus National Player of the Year and No. 1 overall WNBA Draft pick (2018).

Saturday’s game was a collaborative effort between ProHoops Sports & Events, South Carolina and the Las Vegas Aces with the idea of bridging the gap between NCAA women’s basketball and WNBA fan bases. Wilson’s stardom at both the professional and collegiate level combined with USC’s decade-long reign with the nation’s top attendance numbers made her homecoming a fail-safe experiment.

In the words of Aces coach Becky Hammon, “She is the way she is for a reason, and those are her roots. … She’s built different. And South Carolina built her, so why not come back?”

Watching Wilson practice Friday felt like an “out of body experience,” Staley said. She turned to longtime assistant/associate head coach Lisa Boyer in awe. “Look at her,” Staley said. “We had the chance to coach her.”

Wilson trotted around the court during pregame warmups flicking up shots. She let her-follow through hang for about half a second, temporarily frozen in the same position she’s immortalized in with a statue outside the arena.

Her likeness cast in bronze greets thousands on thousands of South Carolina women’s basketball fans every year. The weekend marked her Aces teammates first time seeing the monument in person. They filmed countless TikTok videos and took many selfies Friday evening with both versions of A’ja Wilson.

And Saturday afternoon, the local fans greeted her with dangerous decibel levels of enthusiasm. Hammon was taken aback by the welcome home reception.

“It’s like traveling with The Beatles,” Hammon said. “... It’s madness everywhere she goes.”

While the loudest cheers seemed reserved for her heroics, the whole S.C.-friendly crowd had love and energy to spare for Wilson’s professional teammates. Las Vegas and South Carolina memorabilia alike dotted the arena.

“It tells me that you’re following A’ja right into her pro career,” Hammon said before the game. “And you’re a fan of hers not only as a player, but as a person.”

About an hour and a half before tip, Nike announced Wilson’s highly anticipated signature shoe would launch next spring (2025). She was intentional in aligning the news with her trip home.

“Delayed is not denied,” Wilson said. “And I knew my moment was gonna come. And I knew I wanted to share it with my teammates and my home state.”

Of being home again: “It was just a big hug. And I greatly appreciate CLA opening back up for me.”