A’ja Wilson hasn’t gotten used to Japan yet. The 16-hour time difference between the USA Basketball Women’s National Team training site in Las Vegas and Tokyo is “quite a trickster.”
“I’m just trying to stay up and talk to my family, but at the same time get my rest,” Wilson said in a 6 p.m. Tokyo time Zoom video news conference — that’s 2 a.m. Las Vegas time, and 5 a.m. Eastern.
The former South Carolina star is taking in her first Olympic trip. She’s building chemistry with Team USA as they go after a seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal, sleeping whenever she has the time and savoring the little things about being in the Olympic Village.
Her favorite part of the experience so far? The french toast she ate Wednesday morning.
Wilson is the second former Gamecock to represent the United States in women’s 5×5 at the Olympics and the third with USC ties to make an Olympic team this year. Her former teammate Allisha Gray is on Team USA’s 3×3 roster, and current South Carolina power forward Laeticia Amihere will play for Canada’s 5×5 team.
As she adjusts to the time change and Olympic perks, Wilson has support from fellow Gamecock Dawn Staley, who’s been on this stage plenty of times before.
This year is Staley’s first as head coach of the U.S. Olympic team, but it’s far from her first experience with the Games. She’s won a gold medal in five of the last six consecutive Team USA Olympic victories — in 1996, 2000 and 2004 as a player, and in 2008 and 2016 as an assistant coach.
Staley coached Wilson throughout the All-American’s four-year career at South Carolina from 2014-18. Their collegiate connection peaked when the Gamecocks won a national championship in 2017. Tokyo is an on-court reunion for the two, with the hope of earning a gold medal together.
“It truly means a lot to me, to be a former player of hers, to play underneath her, especially in this light, in this setting, on this huge stage,” Wilson said.
It’s likely Wilson feels a sense of familiarity with Staley at the helm. Staley said her coaching style doesn’t change much as she moves from coaching the Gamecocks to the national team. Her primary point of emphasis remains building relationships first.
Staley leans on the professional coaching experience of assistants Dan Hughes (Seattle Storm), Cheryl Reeve (Minnesota Lynx) and Jennifer Rizzotti (Connecticut Sun). She said their attention to detail works well with her tendency to want to cover as many situations as possible in practice — a trait she’s picked up from coaching in college.
“It’s very similar to what we do at South Carolina,” Staley said. “Just different voices.”
Wilson will be working to earn her first Olympic gold medal in Tokyo, and Staley aims to add a sixth to her collection. Wilson said that while it matters for her personally to win with her former coach, a gold for Staley as the first Black head coach of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team is just as important.
“Representation matters,” Wilson said. “It’s one of those things where if you can see her, you can be her. … I already know Gamecock Nation is super proud of her, as much as I am.”
Sue Bird to be Team USA flag bearer
Five-time Olympian Sue Bird will be the flag bearer for Team USA at Friday’s opening ceremonies. Staley earned the same honor in the 2004 Olympics.
Olympic competition begins in women’s basketball July 26. Team USA’s first game is July 27 against Nigerian — at 2:40 p.m., or 1:40 a.m. Eastern time. The United States pod for the “group stage,” or preliminary rounds, includes Japan, France and Nigeria.
History: USC women’s basketball in the Olympics
USC Olympians, 2020/21 players – A’ja Wilson (U.S. 5×5), Allisha Gray (U.S. 3×3), Laeticia Amihere (Canada 5×5)
USC Olympians, 2020/21 coaches – Dawn Staley (U.S. 5×5 head coach)
USC Olympians, all-time players – Shannon Johnson (U.S. 2004, gold medal), Ilona Burgrova (Czech Republic 2012), Iva Sliskovic (Croatia, 2012); Tatyana Troina (Belarus, 2008, 2016)
USC Olympians, coaches – Dawn Staley (U.S. asst coach 2008, 2016, 2 gold medals)
Statewide SC connections in Tokyo Olympics
▪ CJ Cummings — Beaufort, USA, Weightlifting
▪ Mahassen Hala — Beaufort, Lebanon, Weightlifting
▪ Raven Saunders — Charleston, USA, Track and Field (shot put)
▪ Ali Gayler — Greenville, New Zealand, Swimming
▪ Elisa Cecchetti — USC Upstate, Italy, Softball
▪ Juan Maegli — College of Charleston, Guatemala, Sailing
▪ Enrique Arathoon — College of Charleston, El Salvador, Sailing
▪ Stefano Peschiera — College of Charleston, Peru, Sailing
University of South Carolina connections in Tokyo
▪ Dawn Staley, USA, Women’s Basketball (5×5, Head Coach)
▪ A’ja Wilson, USA, Women’s Basketball (5×5)
▪ Allisha Gray, USA, Women’s Basketball (3×3)
▪ Laeticia Amihere, Canada, Women’s Basketball (5×5)
▪ Wadeline Jonathas, USA, Track and Field (400 meters, 4×400 relay)
▪ Aliyah Abrams, Guyana, Track and Field (400 meters)
▪ Itay Goldfaden, Israel, Swimming (4×100 medley)
▪ Michael Laitarovsky, Israel, Swimming (100 backstroke)
▪ Tom Peribonio, Ecuador, Swimming (200 IM and 400 IM)
▪ Tinky Ho, Hong Kong, Swimming (4×100 and 4×200 freestyle relay)
▪ Julia Vincent, South Africa, Diving (3-meter springboard)
Clemson University connections in Tokyo
▪ Natoya Goule, Jamaica, Track and Field (800)
▪ Andrea Foster, Guyana, Track and Field (800)
▪ Danielle Williams, Jamaica, Track and Field (100 Hurdles)
▪ Kemar Mowatt, Jamaica, Track and Field (400 Hurdles)
▪ Danniel Thomas-Dodd, Jamaica, Track and Field (Shot put)
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