MINNEAPOLIS — Aliyah Boston, dominant and unbowed, shifts to the rhythm of the game. Whatever the situation demands, she will do.
As South Carolina advanced to the national championship game with a 72-59 victory over Louisville on Friday night, Boston showed why she has been racking up player of the year awards. And she did it in her methodical and substantive way, rarely forcing things and influencing the action one smart, tough play at a time.
By the end, her flourishes of greatness added up to a monster stat line: 23 points, 18 rebounds and four assists. She made 8 of 12 shots, and in the fourth quarter, she stepped out and hit a three-pointer. She sank six of seven free throws. She drew seven fouls from Louisville defenders, who all but climbed her back trying to stop her in the paint.
“She has good hands,” Louisville Coach Jeff Walz said of Boston. “She moves well. She finishes on both sides of the floor. She goes after the ball. She’s good. She’s really good. It doesn’t take me to tell you what she’s good at. I’ve got a 6-year-old that can sit there and watch and be like, ‘Yeah, she’s good.’ Yeah, she’s really good."
During a season in which Iowa guard Caitlin Clark did it all and several other all-American players made this 2021-22 campaign memorable, Boston excelled with a quiet brand of dominance, very reminiscent of another astonishingly efficient post player from the U.S. Virgin Islands: Tim Duncan.
It’s seldom appropriate to make basketball comparisons across genders because the styles of male and female athletes are often so different. But the composed and complete manner in which Boston controls the game is so Duncan-like.
Boston didn’t come to this Final Four to prove she’s the best player in her sport. She didn’t even come to avenge last season’s 66-65 semifinal loss to Stanford. She’s in this moment, playing to maximize this opportunity. Next up will be an even tougher task in Connecticut.
“With the awards, I’m really blessed, but my main focus is bringing home a national championship Sunday night,” Boston said. “So I’m just really locked in on that.”
South Carolina (34-2), the wire-to-wire best team in women’s college basketball this season, wears that responsibility well. It’s not a burden. The Gamecocks are not overwhelmed, not afraid to say what everyone else is thinking : A national championship is the only satisfactory ending.
Most teams, no matter how great, will do anything to quell such pressure. Dawn Staley doesn’t coach most teams, however.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to be judged by championships,” Staley said. “That’s the thing that most people remember. Do we feel pressure to win? Yeah, because we’re a pretty good basketball team. We’re here.”
They’re here and fashioning a fresh take on dominance. They are, by far, the nation’s most suffocating defensive team, and though Staley has a roster full of decorated recruits, she tailors everything to that identity. It would be a thoughtless assumption to declare the Gamecocks a limited bunch that compensate for skill deficiencies with superb defense. They have the talent to play a more free-flowing offensive style. Instead, Staley channels most of their athleticism and versatility to create the hardest squad to score against, one that is flexible in the way it can shut down opponents.
With Boston as the anchor, the Gamecocks are physical inside, but they’re versatile around her, full of size and quickness. They start two small guards, Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke, who constantly aggravate ballhandlers without cheating and going for too many steals. Junior guard Brea Beal puts their defense over the top, as a big, multipositional specialist at 6 foot 1. Even the players in the rotation who aren’t exceptional defenders have to be attentive ones. This is why they led the nation in field goal percentage defense, blocked shots and rebounding margin.
They can make the rugged nuances of the game seem artistic.
“We really don’t turn you over. We just stay connected,” Staley said of the defense. “We’re linked up. They do a great job of communicating. We just like to be disruptive, take the first option away, the second option away, and then have you play with a short shot clock. Not a whole lot of teams are super efficient in low shot-clock situations, so we try to put them in that. And then we rebound the basketball.”
With Boston down low, there is little doubt South Carolina will get those boards. And when the offense is struggling, Boston will gobble up offensive rebounds. It’s not easy to be so dependable, but her stardom is steeped in steadiness.
In the first half, with Louisville intent on stopping her, Boston passed the ball and waited for moments to take over. It didn’t seem like she did much, but she still had eight points, eight rebounds and four assists at halftime. In the locker room, Staley adjusted and focused on getting the ball to Boston. She scored 15 points in the second half and added 10 more rebounds. Her production opened the game for her teammates, and the Gamecocks made four of their six three-pointers in the final 20 minutes, took a comfortable 15-point lead in the third quarter and fended off all of the Cardinals’ comeback attempts.
“The game just opened up,” Boston said humbly. “We were able to continue to move the ball, and it opened up for me to get more scoring opportunities.”
She acts like it just happened. It didn’t. South Carolina made a conscious effort to let the game’s most dominant force deliver them to the championship game. No more impatient jumpers. Just get the ball to Boston.
“We have to play through her,” Staley said. “It doesn’t mean that she has to shoot the ball, but every time she touches the ball she draws a crowd. If we’re able to kick it out, that’s probably a time that we need to take those shots. But I thought we just got in the rhythm of shooting outside shots that really didn’t make any sense, and it just threw off our transitional defensive balance. But we corrected it, and when we started going into her, playing inside-out, more shots from the outside started falling.”
On Sunday, Staley will try to lead South Carolina — the only No. 1 team this women’s basketball season has known — to its second national title in five years. Pressure? Sure. But mostly, it’s opportunity. When you have a great team and a game-altering superstar, you can focus on possibility.
“Will us not winning define who we are and what we’re able to accomplish? No,” Staley said. “Whoever it is that’s standing — the last team that’s standing on Sunday night, it’s divine order. I truly believe that. So if it’s not us, it’s not us. We’ll get another shot at it when it’s our turn. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”
If it’s not South Carolina, I’m wondering one thing: Who’s going to stop Aliyah Boston? It’s a question that will linger until Sunday night. And make no mistake, the task of limiting her is definitely a burden.