Coming off of the bench is not something any athlete aspires to do.
But for Coastal Carolina sophomore forward Aja Blount, the role is one she embraces.
“I just do what I have to do to make sure that my team wins,” she said. “I know they are counting on me each and every game.”
Despite not having the best start to her sophomore season, playing just 26 minutes combined in the first two games, she had a major coming out party in a road matchup against Wofford. Blount led the Chants to a 78-73 win in Spartanburg with a 30-point performance. She shot just under 65% from the floor and made all 12 of her free throws.
It's only gotten better from there.
“That was a relieving moment for me because of my performances in my first two games,” she said. “I knew I had to come and play hard. Even the beginning of that game, my teammates and coaches were telling me that I had to step up. After hearing that, I went out and did what I had to do.”
Blount kept momentum from that Wofford game and put it to good use, scoring double digits in her next four games.
For the first time in her career, Blount was named the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Week on Dec. 30, following a 22-point, 11 rebound performance in a blowout win over South Carolina State the day before.
“I was really shocked when I heard that I was the player of the week,” she said. “I’m very blessed that they considered me for that recognition.”
Long before she was even recruited by Coastal, Blount was interested in the school.
“When I went to start my post grad at IMG Academy, I knew that I wanted to go to Coastal,” she said. “I had a dream of coming here and I hoped they would recruit [me]. Thankfully, it all worked out.”
Blount didn’t make the best first impression when Coastal scouts came to see her the first time, but it was the relationship that CCU head coach Jaida Williams had with the head coach of IMG — as well her knowledge of how post players develop — that helped Blount get a second look.
“I trust the word of IMG’s coach,” Williams said. “One of our other players on this team, Kaylin West, came from IMG and that coach has been real honest with me in the past. I also know that sometimes post players need a little extra time. You give yourself a little bit more of a grace period with your post players that you’re recruiting because they need time to develop.”
Williams was more than impressed with Blount when she went to see her play.
“She could rebound, post up and shoot threes,” she said. “Anything you needed, she could do. I told myself after seeing her that I didn’t know what this could grow into, but if she’s everything her coach says that she is, she’s going to be able to grow into who she is becoming.”
Blount had an average freshman year, playing in all 32 games. She was a starter in nearly a third of those contests. She averaged 7.1 points per game, including a 23-point performance against North Carolina Wesleyan on Dec. 8, 2018.
After a slow start to her sophomore campaign, Blount has continued to improve.
Against South Alabama on Jan. 4, she surpassed not only her career high in points, she nearly became just the third Coastal player to eclipse 40 points in a single game.
Blount scored 38, going a perfect 14 of 14 from the free-throw line in her team’s 71-62 win over the Jaguars.
“Prior to the South Carolina State game, Aja had come back from Christmas break with a serious case of hives and she just had a rough week at practice,” Williams said. “The performances she had following that rough week just reiterates what I preach to my players in that God will always reward those who continue to work their tail off no matter the circumstances they are put in.”
Earlier in the week, she scored 14 points in the team’s 84-77 loss to Troy on Jan. 2. The 52 combined points for that week gave Blount the honor of the highest scoring player in all of Division I basketball the week of Dec. 30 to Jan. 5.
“She could’ve easily gone into those games and let the personal things she had dealt with that week get to her, but she didn’t,” Williams said. “That just shows the amount of fight in her and her willingness to compete and do what is necessary to help the team get better and win.”
Blount’s improvement can be seen on the stat sheet. Last season, she scored in double figures 10 times. She has already scored double figures in 13 games during year sophomore year.
She is shooting a lot better from the floor, making more than 50% of her shots compared to the 47.7% from last season. Her free-throw percentage is up from 80.4% to over 85%.
All of these improvements and yet she has only started in one of the first 16 games she played in.
“Aja’s a coach’s kid, so she’s going to do whatever is asked of her to win the game,” Williams said. “As a coach, that’s a blessing. Some people have an idea of what the role is supposed to look like, but with Aja she just looks at you and says, ‘Coach, put me wherever you need me’ and does her thing.”
Despite all of the improvements, as well as the accolades she has been getting, Blount said there is still more to work on.
“I feel like I could be better on the defensive side of the ball,” she said. “Defense is a big thing when you are a post player and I have a problem guarding smaller guards sometimes, so that something I need to work on and get better throughout the season.”
Heading into this week, Blount was second on the team in points (15.2 points per game), behind senior guard DJ Williams (16.5 points per game).
The Chanticleers are now 14-2 overall and 4-1 in Sun Belt play, sitting atop of the conference.
The team heads to Appalachian State on Saturday and then finishes off a road trip by taking on Arkansas State on Jan. 25.
Coastal Carolina returns to the HTC Center on Jan. 30 to face Georgia Southern.