COLUMBIA — South Carolina's A'ja Wilson had not felt this bad about a victory in a long, long time. And she's promised not to let it happen again, especially not in her final home appearance in …
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COLUMBIA — South Carolina's A'ja Wilson had not felt this bad about a victory in a long, long time. And she's promised not to let it happen again, especially not in her final home appearance in her stellar college career.
Wilson had 19 points and 16 rebounds as second-seeded South Carolina struggled to put away 15th-seeded North Carolina A&T 63-52 in the women's NCAA Tournament's Albany Regional on Friday night.
The Gamecocks (27-6) held a 19-point lead at the half, yet were scrambling by the end to hold off the hard-charging Aggies (23-9) in the final quarter.
"I felt like I disappointed coach this game and I don't like that feeling," said Wilson, the three-time Southeastern Conference player of the year and the program's all-time leading scorer. "When we watch film, I'm going to see how I can change my ways."
Something will have to change if defending champion South Carolina hopes to make another run at a national title.
South Carolina was up 39-21 at the half and seemed ready to cruise to their seventh straight NCAA win and ninth consecutive opening-round game. Instead, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament champ outhustled and outplayed the Southeastern Conference tourney winners much of the final 20 minutes.
The Gamecocks were still ahead 53-37 after Doniyah Cliney's layup with 8:44 to go. Then the Aggies took off on a 14-5 run that cut the margin to 58-51 on Kala Green's third 3-pointer of the period with 3:22 remaining. That was as close as North Carolina A&T (23-9) got as South Carolina avoided a huge stunner in the tournament.
"I think the way we played basketball was unacceptable for us, especially this time of year," Wilson said. "And especially after what we did" in defeating previously unbeaten Mississippi State two weeks back to win a fourth-straight SEC Tournament.
The Gamecocks moved on to a Sunday night second-round game with Virginia, the program that South Carolina coach Dawn Staley put on the map with three Final Four appearances more than a quarter-century ago.
Virginia, the 10th seed, topped No. 7 seed Cal 68-62 earlier Friday.
South Carolina, seeded second, will need a stronger effort than this if they hope to push ahead to the tournament's second week.
No one was immune to the struggles. While Wilson put up her 22nd double-double this season and 52nd of her career, she was just 6 of 15 from the field and bottled up much of the game by North Carolina A&T's defense. Alexis Jennings, expected to replace Alaina Coates as a second low-post option, had 10 boards but just seven points — all on foul shots.
Point guard Tyasha Harris, the SEC's leader in assists, was just 1 of 5 from the field with one assist.
Freshman Bianca Jackson was South Carolina's only other double-figure scorer with 16 points.
Green led the Aggies with 21 points off five 3-pointers. North Carolina A&T fell to 0-4 in the NCAA Tournament, although this was closest margin of defeat in those games.
Aggies coach Tarrell Robinson was proud of his team's fight. He said his team sped up South Carolina's play and got it off its usual game. He had his fingers crossed his team could pull off the upset before the Gamecocks put things away in the last minute.
Robinson was asked his thoughts when his team cut the lead to seven points.
"Was it seven? I thought it was eight," he replied. "You've got me even madder now."
North Carolina A&T: The Aggies showed grit and toughness in the final two quarters, something that seemed to take South Carolina by surprise. North Carolina A&T packed their players around Wilson, making it near impossible for her to get open looks. They forced 11 turnovers the final 20 minutes.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks need to get their game in gear. After winning a fourth straight SEC Tournament title nearly two weeks ago, South Carolina looked sluggish and disinterested for long stretches. That will not sit well with Staley and will cost the team down the road.
Staley said the only thing on her mind at facing the Cavaliers is winning the second-round matchup. "Obviously, it's my alma mater," she said. "But nothing would be better than to win and advance."
Staley is 0-2 against the Cavaliers with both losses coming while she was Temple's coach.
Staley was pleased about one thing, the large turnout. South Carolina led the country in attendance this season and Staley talked up the community to fill the seats this time, too. The school had sold only 6,000 or so NCAA ticket books on Monday night, but topped out at more than 11,000. "We'll need even more here for Virginia," she said, smiling.
South Carolina will play its final home game of the season against No. 10 seed Virginia on Sunday.
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