Women's college basketball preview: South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston isn’t scared of the big shot

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Aliyah Boston was in such disbelief, she had to call her mom back home in the U.S. Virgin Islands for a reality check.

“Is this really happening?!” Boston cried, starstruck. “Am I really working out right now with Tim Duncan?!”

For Boston, South Carolina’s 6-foot-5, do-everything forward and a native of St. Thomas, working out with the most famous player to ever come out of the Virgin Islands — Duncan was born in St. Croix — was surreal. Duncan won five NBA titles in his 19-year career with San Antonio and is arguably the best power forward of all time, a precision king known for superior fundamentals. Suffice it to say that Boston, a popular pick for women’s college basketball’s preseason player of the year, could learn a thing or two from the Hall of Famer.

South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston (4) looks to pass against Texas A&M center Ciera Johnson (40) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)
South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston (4) looks to pass against Texas A&M center Ciera Johnson (40) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)

Duncan, she said, displayed an obvious championship mentality.

“He was going hard at every drill and it’s like, dang, OK, you gotta come on at this level,” said Boston, who’s proud to share that she did beat Duncan in at least one game of 1-on-1.

Now she’ll try to take the skills Duncan drilled with her — specifically, an improved bank shot and hook shot — and translate them to her play with the Gamecocks, who are on the hunt for their second title under Dawn Staley.

South Carolina has become a powerhouse in Staley’s 13 seasons in Columbia, reaching three Final Fours in the last six tournaments and winning the 2017 title. With Boston leading one of the nation’s most talented teams — the Gamecocks welcomed a loaded 2021 recruiting class to campus this fall — South Carolina will be in the mix for the 2022 title, too. The Gamecocks open the season ranked No. 1 in the USA TODAY Sports coaches poll.

Boston starts this season with heartbreak from April fresh in her mind. In the 2021 national semifinals against Stanford, Boston missed a tip-in at the buzzer that would have won it for South Carolina. (Stanford went on to defeat Arizona for the championship.) Her tearful reaction became one of the defining images of an exhilarating women’s tournament. It was also eerily similar to a missed tip-in against against UConn on Feb. 8, 2021, another South Carolina loss.

Boston - whom USA TODAY Sports and the national media has tapped as the preseason player of the year - said she hasn’t watched the film from either of those games. She doesn’t need to, because anytime she closes her eyes, she replays those excruciating seconds in her mind. Now the trick is to not let the misses haunt her.

“The basketball gods did her wrong in those instances,” Staley said. “After UConn I told her, ‘You’ve gotta make that, that’s a routine play for you.’ After Stanford my words to her were, ‘That play doesn’t define who you are. You’ve had too many great basketball moments already and you’re going to have so many more.’”

Staley encouraged Boston to channel people like Duncan and WNBA All-Star Candace Parker, Boston’s favorite player.

“You’ve gotta be like a pro and turn the page,” Staley said. “Pros build up so much mental strength and they know, there’s greatness on the other side of mistakes.”

South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston (4) reacts at the end of a women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament semifinal game against Stanford Friday, April 2, 2021, at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Stanford won 66-65. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston (4) reacts at the end of a women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament semifinal game against Stanford Friday, April 2, 2021, at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Stanford won 66-65. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

It’s likely more greatness is waiting for Boston, Staley said, because of her dedication to the game. Boston is down 20 pounds since the beginning of last season, which she did by “giving it all up — no ice cream, no mac’n’cheese, no Chick-fil-A.” She’s found a balance now where she treats herself occasionally. But being in better shape allows her stay sharp at the end of games, cleaning up foul mistakes and bad passes out of double teams. It’s a worthwhile tradeoff.

Boston is unique in that she’s supremely skilled on both sides of the ball, a fact Staley attributes to Boston’s intellect. Last season as more of a point-forward, the Gamecocks’ offense had to run through her. She’ll have more help this season, but still wants to be a more reliable, efficient scorer. To do that Boston hopes to improve her 3-point shooting by almost 10 percentage points; last year she took 49 attempts from long distance, connecting on just 26.5%; she’d like it to be closer to 35%. Upping that, along with her regular field goal percentage — she shot 52.2% on 2s, and would like it to be closer to 60% — would make a big difference.

And while averaging a double-double (13.7 points and 11.5 rebounds) is cool and all, Boston actually prefers the defensive side of the ball, where she swatted away 2.6 shots per game last season.

“The scoring aspect is good,” she said, “but when someone comes into the paint and thinks they’ve got [a shot] and it’s like, ‘Oh, sorry, honey,’ that’s really good.”

Other things that Boston thinks would be “really good:” Helping South Carolina build a women’s basketball dynasty with a couple more titles; a statue of Boston outside the arena similar to that of former Gamecock standout A’ja Wilson; watching her older sister Alexis play her junior year at Thomas University in Georgia; more trips to Columbia for her parents, who are still in St. Thomas; and a broadcast career whenever she’s done playing. (Thomas would like to work women’s and men’s basketball games, and is intrigued by football. “I need to work on my terminology though,” she said. “I don’t think you can say ‘They stole the ball, look at them go!’ when a guy gets a pick-six.”)

Also on that list of potentially really good things: Another chance for a tip-in during a crucial game.

“I’m not afraid,” Boston said, “of going after those shots.”

It’s a mentality Duncan would approve of.

Follow national correspondent Lindsay Schnell on Twitter at @Lindsay_Schnell

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: South Carolina standout Aliyah Boston learns from NBA champ Tim Duncan