GREENSBORO, N.C. – Aliyah Boston headed across the court to join her South Carolina teammates in their celebration when she bumped into assistant coach Fred Chmiel.
Almost immediately, Chmiel jumped into the 6-foot-5 junior’s arms for an exuberant hug.
It was a reversal from a year earlier, when Chmiel held a sobbing Boston on the court after the horn sounded to end South Carolina’s title push in a Final Four game that ended with her missing a putback for the win.
Boston and the Gamecocks are headed back to that same point, this time as the No. 1 overall seed in the women NCAA Tournament. They’ve relentlessly stalked this title dream all season.
“She’s mature enough to handle it,” coach Dawn Staley said. “She’s grounded. She knows who she is. She never gets out in front of anything. … That’s just a real good sign of just maturing and knowing who you are, knowing your worth and knowing that she’s probably the (national) player of the year.”
The first-team Associated Press All-American had 19 points in Sunday night’s 80-50 win against Creighton in the Greensboro Region final, which sent South Carolina to the Final Four for the second straight year and fourth time overall. Next up is a national semifinal against the Michigan-Louisville winner.
Boston didn’t have the monster output like she did in the Sweet 16 win against North Carolina, and even saw the end of her 27-game double-double streak. But she commanded heavy defensive attention from multiple blue jerseys throughout the night while remaining the physical presence at the core of the Gamecocks’ push all year.
Boston was named the most outstanding player of the Greensboro Region, an award all but assured when she overwhelmed North Carolina for 28 points and 22 rebounds – 10 coming on the offensive glass – in Friday’s Sweet 16. This time she had 14 of her points by halftime and finished 7 of 9 from the field to go with her seven rebounds.
She did it amid plenty of defensive attention and smaller defenders swarming around her, though none could match her strength. At one point, Creighton’s Emma Ronsiek and Morgan Maly – both 6-1 – tried to double her in the post, only to see Boston bump Maly to the floor before getting the ball for the inside putaway.
The Gamecocks didn’t need a huge output from Boston on Sunday, overwhelming the 10th-seeded Bluejays — only the fourth double-digit seed to reach an Elite Eight — so thoroughly that she spent plenty of time resting in the fourth quarter. There was also plenty of help, with big performances from teammates Destanni Henderson (12 points), Brea Beal (12) and Victaria Saxton (11 points, 11 rebounds).
“When you’re paying that much attention to her, you’re giving up six offensive rebounds to Saxton maybe because you have to come off her body, or you’re just in that position,” Creighton coach Jim Flanery said, adding, “Yeah, she’s tough to deal with.”
For Boston, everything has been about pushing toward the program’s second national championship, especially after how last year’s season ended.
South Carolina had a final, desperate transition play in last year’s national semifinals. Trailing eventual champion Stanford 66-65, Boston came up with a steal near midcourt and fed Brea Beal on the drive. Beal’s shot bounced off the rim and to a trailing Boston, who immediately put the ball up to beat the buzzer – only to see it bounce off the back of the rim and away.
Boston immediately grabbed her head with both hands and knelt to the court. By the time she had stood back up, she was sobbing, not even making it to the sideline. Chmiel embraced her as she continued to cry on his shoulder.
Boston and her teammates have been driven to get another shot, but she hasn’t dwelled on replaying those final painful seconds in her head.
“I think part of growing up and maturing is being able to move on,” Boston said. “So that happened last season but that’s not something I can continue to think about or else there wouldn’t be any progress. So I’ve let go of that since last season and we’ve moved on.”
The Gamecocks responded by becoming a wire-to-wire No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll. Now, they’re heading to Minneapolis as a title favorite as their march continues.