ATLANTA — Despite the 200-plus miles between Columbia and Gateway Center Arena, the atmosphere at the Atlanta Dream's home opener against the Indiana Fever on Sunday felt more like a South Carolina women's basketball crowd at Colonial Life Arena.
The No. 4 jersey that Aliyah Boston wore for the Gamecocks dotted the sold-out crowd, welcoming the Fever's No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft back to the South. Fans also repped the college jerseys of Fever forward Victaria Saxton and Dream forward Laeticia Amihere, greeting Amihere with one of the largest cheers of the night when the roster was announced pregame.
"It felt really good that they were cheering for me, even though they were in Atlanta's building," Boston said with a laugh. "It's special (to play former teammates). I think it shows the program and what Coach (Dawn) Staley does and where she elevates her players to, so it's really nice."
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Mary Ellen Sartori has been a Gamecocks fan since attending South Carolina in the 1970s and regularly makes the trip to Atlanta to watch former players in the WNBA. In 2022, she saw A'ja Wilson with the Las Vegas Aces, Destanni Henderson with the Indiana Fever and Allisha Gray with the Dallas Wings.
The Dream's matchup with the Fever was on her list for this season, the first time that two of "The Freshies" — South Carolina's iconic 2019 recruiting class — faced off on opposite benches.
"It's very rare that you have five come in and stay for the whole four years," Sartori said. "There was probably more South Carolina fans here than there were (at the Final Four) in Dallas."
The class of 2019 lost just one home game in its four years at South Carolina, and the energy from the 'FAMS' continued for Boston in Atlanta. With a 90-87 victory, the Fever ended a WNBA record-tying 20-game losing streak dating back to June 2022, and Boston finished with 13 points, seven rebounds, a steal and an assist.
"We're trying to change the culture, and that takes steps," Boston said. "Getting our first win was one of them, so everyone's just really excited ... It was really special to get this first win, especially it being an away game."
Bonnie Stephens and her husband Jim met Sartori in 2022 on their flight to Minneapolis for the Gamecocks' national championship, and all three traveled together again to the Final Four in 2023. On Sunday, Bonnie and Jim rode with Sartori to their first-ever WNBA game to support Boston and her former teammates.
Sartori and the Stephenses waited in a long line of fans and admirers to snap selfies with Boston after the victory. Though they struggled to decide which team to root for with Gamecocks on both sides, Bonnie and Jim said they have always especially loved Boston.
"She's just so personable. She's a real person," Jim said. "And she does this all the time. We saw her in Minneapolis and she was the same way."
The trio also took photos with Amihere and Saxton as the two caught up on the court postgame. Bonnie said seeing them in opposing uniforms will take some getting used to, but she hopes to return to Atlanta for more WNBA games this season.
"It was a little bittersweet, because we wish they were still with us and still together," Bonnie said. "They just all played together so well, and they wanted to win as a team ... but they're starting the next phase of they're lives, and we're hoping that they will be very successful."
This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Aliyah Boston welcomed by South Carolina fans in win vs Atlanta Dream