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MINNEAPOLIS — Aliyah Boston disappeared on the block behind a semicircle of black jerseys after Destanni Henderson fed her the ball from the arc. It appeared Louisville had her trapped, poised to head into halftime of the Final Four down by only four when the Cardinals looked rattled and out of contention in the first quarter.
Boston, the newly named Naismith, Associated Press and USBWA Player of the Year, raised to shoot amid the six arms. She pivoted toward the baseline. And suddenly, the ball was briefly in the hands of Brea Beal all alone on the other side of the basket. It was just as quickly through the net and South Carolina, the wire-to-wire No. 1 team in the country, was two points closer to a 72-59 win and second-ever spot in the NCAA national championship to face UConn, which eked out a win over Stanford in the second semifinal game.
“Last year, we lost in the Final Four, but this year we knew that we were going to be tested, and this is the hump that we need to get over,” Boston said after her 29th double-double in 36 games. “And we got over that tonight, and we're on to the national championship game, so we're really excited.”
Boston’s final play of South Carolina’s 2021 tournament, for better or worse, has been plastered everywhere for a year now. She had a chance at the putback in the final second, but it was Stanford that moved on as an emotional Boston was consoled by teammates.
Not this time.
The junior center was as dominant as she had been all season with a casual 23 points on an efficient 8-of-12 shooting and 18 rebounds. After an eight-point first half, the game opened up and she took off as the Gamecocks focused on getting her the ball.
“We have to play through her,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, also an award winner this week, 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.”
Henderson (11 points) and Zia Cooke (10 points) combined to shoot 8-of-20 and their 3-pointers out of the halftime break gave South Carolina space as Boston began to truly operate. The Cardinals had no answer for her, though they had solid flashes, and couldn’t do anything against her, though they fought to within four toward the end of the third quarter.
Boston quelled that comeback, too. The Cardinals scored six straight to pull within six when Boston pulled down the offensive rebound off a shot by Henderson. It was a double whammy for Louisville. Forward Emily Engstler, who pulled the Cardinals back into the game time and again, committed her fourth foul on the putback. Boston hit both free throws to push the lead back to nine and Engstler wound up fouling out halfway into the fourth quarter. The South Carolina star, who is ineligible to declare for the WNBA draft due to age restrictions, said the play gave them the momentum.
Engstler, a likely first-round pick in the WNBA draft on April 11, led Louisville with 18 points, nine rebounds, four steals, one block and one assist. Guard Hailey Van Lith struggled (nine points, nine rebounds), and the Cardinals offense couldn’t get anything going deep or get by the length of South Carolina. They looked frazzled from the tip and head coach Jeff Walz motioned to them after Gamecock points to settle.
“I played a little passive, I will say that, with their length in the key,” Van Lith said. “I was able to get to spots in the key, but they're long. They’ve got [6-foot-5] Aliyah Boston and [6-foot-2 Victaria] Saxton in there. So I was looking to kick and we did [get] good shots.”
Walz, always out to crack jokes, listed off the obvious: good hands, moves well, finishes on both sides of the floor.
“It doesn't take me to tell you what she's good at,” Walz said. “I've got a 6-year-old that can sit there and watch the game and be like, yeah, she's good. Yeah, she's really good.”
South Carolina appeared poised from player announcements and on a mission they’ve held since this entire team left the tournament earlier than wanted a year ago.
The program’s only other berth in the championship game was in 2017 when they won the title. That squad featured A’ja Wilson and Allisha Gray, who filmed a “good luck” video played at Target Center in the first half. The Gamecocks-heavy crowd roared loudest at their entry. Give it a few years, and it could be Boston checking in from the WNBA for college basketball’s modern powerhouse.
“With the awards, I'm really blessed,” Boston said. “But my main focus is bringing home a national championship Sunday, so I’m really just locked into that.”