COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley knows her team is a work in progress. Having All-American A'ja Wilson, though, means the lessons learned usually come in victories rather than defeats.
That was the case once more Tuesday night as Wilson put up 26 points and 15 rebounds to help the Gamecocks overcome some sluggish, sloppy play and roll past College of Charleston 69-43.
"For us, we're not where we need to be," Staley said of the defending national champions. "It was a game where we just were mentally challenged."
At least until Wilson got rolling.
The 6-foot-5 senior reached double figures in points and rebounds less than 14 minutes into the game. She helped the Gamecocks (9-1) break open a way-too-tight game with four straight baskets to close the first quarter.
The Cougars (2-6) made only three field goals in the opening 20 minutes.
When College of Charleston cut a 24-point lead to 14 to start the third quarter, it was Wilson who once again restored order — and a 20-point lead — with two foul shots and two baskets.
It's a different feel this season for Wilson, who saw three high-scoring and productive teammates in Alaina Coates, Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray leave for the WNBA after winning the national title.
"It's a role I've worked to make myself good at," Wilson said. "When we need to score points, I want to be there."
She's confident the younger Gamecocks — five of their 11 players are first-timers at South Carolina — will grow and mold into a similarly strong unit as last year when the Southeastern Conference schedule starts later this month.
Wilson, the two-time Southeastern Conference player of the year, made 10 of 20 shots. She also had three steals and a block as the Gamecocks beat Charleston for a ninth straight time.
Alexis Jennings had 12 points for South Carolina while freshman guard Bianca Jackson had 10 rebounds.
Darien Huff had 10 points to lead Charleston.
Cougars coach Candice Jackson was pleased with her team's resolve. She said Charleston just faced too much in the middle.
"A'ja Wilson is the best player in the country for a reason," Jackson said.
THE BIG PICTURE
College of Charleston: The Cougars, who were 9-21 a year ago, have been already been pummeled this season by a Power Five opponent in Michigan State (107-43), although they showed some spark in the second half to close the gap a bit before the Gamecocks again took control. Charleston plays at Wake Forest in two weeks before opening play in the Colonial Athletic Association. Expect more struggles for Charleston as nine of its 14 players are underclassmen.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks can count on Wilson and Alexis Jennings to get them through games with overmatched opponents like College of Charleston. They'll need their experienced, injured guards in Bianca Cuevas-Moore and Lindsey Spann to get healthy and their younger, inexperienced players to take several steps forward when Southeastern Conference play arrives later this month.
South Carolina has played with past three games without seniors Cuevas-Moore and Spann. Cuevas-Moore has not played all season with a knee issue, while Spann hurt her knee against Notre Dame late last month. There could be help on the way, though. Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley will ask the NCAA for a waiver to allow Tennessee transfer Te'a Cooper to play after the first semester ends later this month. If granted, Cooper could join the lineup earlier than planned.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley moved to within a game of matching Nancy Wilson's mark of 231 coaching victories with the Gamecocks. Staley's first chance to do it comes against Savannah State on Dec. 17. If the heavily favored Gamecocks win, Staley can set the mark in her Philadelphia hometown when South Carolina plays at Temple on Dec. 21.
College of Charleston will take a 10-day break before heading to North Florida on Dec. 15.
South Carolina will be off even longer, 12 days, before its next game at home against Savannah State.
More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25