March Madness win perfect home send-off for Aliyah Boston, other South Carolina seniors

COLUMBIA — Olivia Thompson knew the shot was going in the second it left her fingertips.

The South Carolina women's basketball senior — who joined the Gamecocks (34-0) as a walk-on in 2019 — let the 3-pointer fly from several feet beyond the arc with less than 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter against South Florida (27-7). Colonial Life Arena roared as the ball rattled through the hoop, and the entire South Carolina bench lept to its feet screaming.

It was the perfect ending to a perfect send-off for the Gamecocks seniors, who conclude their four years in Columbia with a 60-1 record at home.

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"I was just trying to soak up the moment a little bit. The energy was just amazing, so I'm really glad I could go out in that kind of way," Thompson said. "The support from the fans and the team, for everyone really, is amazing. I feel very grateful to be a part of a team like this."

The Class of 2019 shined in the South Carolina's 76-45 win over USF in the second round of NCAA Tournament on Sunday. Zia Cooke led the team with 21 points, her eighth game with at least 20 points this season. Aliyah Boston recorded the 81st double-double of her career, logging 11 points and 11 rebounds in just 17 minutes. Laeticia Amihere nearly had a double-double too with 10 points and six rebounds, and Brea Beal went 2-of-3 from the field with five rebounds and a block.

Cooke usually tries to tune out the crowd when she is on the court, but on Sunday she let herself savor the noise from the 10,335 fans. The team will almost certainly have a strong cheering section at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville for Monday's Sweet 16 matchup, but Cooke said nothing compares to the energy at Colonial Life Arena.

"When they call our names, I hear them very loud, and after the game I was just looking at the fans giving them hearts just letting them know I appreciate everything they've done," Cooke said. "Just being in CLA with the fans and being with my teammates, this is literally the most perfect college career anyone could ask for."

Even as they said goodbye to the arena that they have called home for four years, the seniors still managed to keep the emotions at bay. It was the little things that caught Beal off guard, like her final walk into the locker room alongside Boston after they finished warm-ups.

"I don't think it's really going to hit us until we actually leave (the arena) that that's probably my last time stepping foot in here," Beal said. "I kinda was (thinking about it), especially when the crowd started cheering like crazy. I looked at (Boston) like wow, this is our last time here."

The businesslike approach was no surprise to coach Dawn Staley. She said she rarely has to check her upperclassmen's focus and simply tries to match the deal in how they deal with emotional moments. Seeing the fans show her seniors love one last time was special though, and her strongest emotion in that moment was gratitude.

"It's been truly a coach's dream. I hope that every coach gets a chance to coach a team like this, because we coach so many other teams in which they're exhausting. But this team, we're just about basketball," Staley said. "I'm appreciative of having experienced it because not every coach experiences it at all."

This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Aliyah Boston, South Carolina seniors get March Madness home sendoff