MINNEAPOLIS — South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston stood on the stage in the middle of Target Center on Sunday night, celebrating with Coach Dawn Staley and her teammates in the immediate aftermath of the 64-49 win against Connecticut that delivered the top-seeded Gamecocks a second national championship.
Boston’s overwhelming superiority inside included 11 rebounds in the second half and a timely block early in the fourth quarter leading to a breakaway layup by Destanni Henderson that bumped South Carolina’s lead back to double figures at 50-39.
“I thought our players were just really resilient,” said Staley, who won her first national championship with the Gamecocks in 2017. “They didn’t want to lose this so close to being national champions. They did not want to lose this battle, so they kicked it into another gear to get it done.”
Not long after South Carolina players cut down the nets and emerged from their jubilant locker room wearing freshly minted national championship caps, the discussion turned to the tantalizing possibility of becoming the fourth program in women’s college basketball history to repeat.
The only other schools to have accomplished the feat are Connecticut, Tennessee and Southern California. The Huskies (30-6) were the last team to repeat, winning an unmatched four in a row from 2013 through 2016, but they lost Sunday night for the first time in 12 appearances in the NCAA tournament final, all under Coach Geno Auriemma.
Boston had a simple answer when asked what her aspirations are for next year: “Same as this season,” she said without hesitating.
The Gamecocks’ quest to repeat is buoyed significantly with Boston coming back for her senior season. The 6-foot-5 forward is not eligible for the WNBA draft per league rules that state a player must be at least 22 years old during the year in which the draft takes place or must have completed her college eligibility.
Boston shared a moment with one of her favorite players after the game, waving to Candace Parker, who was standing in the first row of seats watching the trophy presentation. Parker is a two-time WNBA champion and won NCAA titles at Tennessee in 2007 and 2008.
Boston indicated she gladly would accept insight from Parker on how best to manage the demands that go into capturing consecutive national championships.
“I think over the past couple years, you’ve been able to see this program and how it continues to grow,” Boston said. “I think it’s a school that kids are going to want to come to because of our atmosphere that we have here. Our fans are the best. Coach Staley is one of the best coaches, and she has a great coaching staff, and they just continue to push us every single day.”
Henderson, who finished with a career-high 26 points against Connecticut, is a senior and was South Carolina’s second-leading scorer this season behind Boston, but starting guards Zia Cooke and Brea Beal, the Gamecocks’ most relentless defender, are both juniors.
Staley also has another top recruiting class next season with verbal commitments from five-star prospects Ashlyn Watkins and Talaysia Cooper. ESPN ranks Watkins the No. 4 post player in her class and Cooper the No. 4 point guard.
“When you look at a program like South Carolina and how much it’s developed and how great it is, I feel like coming into this game the conversation was about how Coach Auriemma was 11-0 in title games, but Coach Staley was 1-0,” Boston said. “Now here she goes, she’s 2-0, it just shows the type of program she’s built and how great it is being a dynasty.”
Staley became the first Black coach in men’s or women’s college basketball to win multiple national championships. She also led Virginia to three Final Four appearances and one berth in the NCAA tournament final as the Cavaliers’ starting point guard from 1989 through ’92.
Before Staley arrived in Columbia, S.C., in 2008, the Gamecocks had not reached a Final Four. They since have made four appearances, all in the past seven NCAA tournaments.
“I told Dawn after the game they were the best team in the country all year,” said Auriemma, who also lost to South Carolina, 73-57, on Nov. 22 during a holiday tournament. “They were No. 1 in the country in November when we saw them down in the Bahamas, and they’re the best team in the country today.”