Gamecock connection with A’ja Wilson comforts Dawn Staley amid high pressure in Tokyo

South Carolina women’s basketball is front and center on Team USA’s Olympic squad, and the connection between head coach Dawn Staley and Gamecock great A’ja Wilson has been a piece of the victory puzzle in Tokyo.

In an open diary entry Tuesday for The Undefeated, Staley described the mounting pressure of her first Olympics as Team USA head coach — and how her relationship with Wilson has helped alleviate some of it.

“I’m very comfortable with A’ja,” Staley wrote. “She gives me the familiarity that I need to coach this team. There are some players that you look at, you feel — I can look at her and she’ll know what I’m talking about.”

Team USA got off to a 3-0 start in the opening group round in Tokyo, defeating Nigeria, Japan and France. As the Americans ready for their semifinal matchup with Australia on Wednesday, Staley described a feeling different than anything she’s felt in her coaching career thus far.

“Being in this position, you feel the pressure of having to succeed,” Staley wrote. “What does that look like? It looks like a lot less sleep. It looks like your mind is constantly thinking about the worst-case scenario and how do you prepare for that.”

On the 12-woman team made up of six Olympic veterans and six newcomers, the first-time Olympian Wilson has adjusted well, Staley wrote. Wilson’s quick adjustment is reinforced by her stat line: The USC alum, All-American and WNBA MVP was Team USA’s leading scorer in all of its first three games and finished with a double-double in two of them.

“I think she’s fortunate that she’s playing with other great players that just allow her to be great at what she does,” Staley wrote. “She’s not forcing anything, she’s just flowing with whoever she’s out there playing with. You can only be proud.”

Though this is their first Olympics together, Staley and Wilson have seen success in a high-stakes tournament together before. The two won the national championship as coach-and-player at South Carolina in 2017.

The Americans are now in the knockout stage of the Olympic tournament and must win the next two games to make it to the gold medal contest, which will be held on Saturday, Aug. 7 at 10:30 p.m. Staley wrote that Wilson’s youthful energy brings exactly what Team USA needs to win its seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal.

“A’ja and I, we understand each other,” Staley wrote. “She knows what’s at stake. She’s not that type of player that you have to remind. She wants to win. She wants to help me win a gold medal. She’s already voiced that. She’s just putting it into action.”