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Aliyah Boston, Dawn Staley ride belief in each other to NCAA title

Aliyah Boston was named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament after leading South Carolina to the title. (Bri Lewerke/Just Women’s Sports)

MINNEAPOLIS — Aliyah Boston was in high demand after the buzzer sounded and hordes of people rushed the court to celebrate South Carolina’s triumph Sunday night. The towering, smiling junior danced around with her teammates at center court, stopped for television interviews, shouted across the crowd to her idol, Candace Parker, and shared a moment with 2017 South Carolina champion A’ja Wilson.

There were more people who wanted to catch a glimpse or a soundbite of Boston than the star player had time for. Then, Dawn Staley found her in the crowd.

“That’s it right there!” Staley said, as she cupped her hands around Boston’s face and pointed at the cameras to catch her smile.

The lasting image from South Carolina’s run to the Final Four last year was of Boston’s face, tears welling up in her eyes and cascading down her cheeks as soon as her game-winning putback attempt against Stanford bounced off the rim. The Gamecocks walked away two points away from the national championship game, while Stanford went on to win it all.

One year later, South Carolina didn’t leave any question as to who was the best team in the country, jumping out to a 14-point lead over UConn in the first quarter and never trailing in the 64-49 win. Boston, in a fashion that has become almost automatic, finished with a double-double of 11 points and 16 rebounds to win her first national championship and the program’s second.

“God has blessed us, blessed us with great teammates who made the decision to trust Coach Staley, trust the process, and we’re victorious tonight,” Boston said after the trophy ceremony, off to the side of the celebration.

As Boston made her rounds through the fallen confetti and the feeling sunk in, there were tears. But this time through the tears, her eyes sparkled and her lips turned up into a smile, showing the mouth full of braces everyone has come to see this season.

That’s the image Staley wanted remembered.

“I think a player like Aliyah doesn’t realize her power. I think she’s really a nice young lady, and she wants everything to be smooth, smooth sailing. She doesn’t want any conflict. She’s not confrontational,” Staley said later on. “When you are like that, you don’t really understand the power of being dominant.”

Dominance was the theme for South Carolina and Boston all season long. The No. 1 team in the nation from the AP preseason poll through the NCAA Tournament, the Gamecocks lost just two games while rolling through the rest of their SEC schedule and tough non-conference slate. Boston was the biggest reason why, averaging a double-double for the Gamecocks (that at one point reached a streak of 27 straight) and finishing the season as the National Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.

But there were many times, especially during Boston’s first two seasons under Staley, that the coach had to be hard on the 6-foot-5 forward because she shied away from her greatness. It wasn’t Boston’s nature to demand the ball and step into the spotlight, so she needed a nudge.

“I’ve been around a lot of great basketball players who have been dominant, and I saw it in her, and I would not allow her to be anything less than that, even if I had to hurt her,” said Staley, the National Coach of the Year. “From a basketball standpoint, I think I’m the perfect coach for her because I recognize what her gifts are and how to walk into that.”

With Staley’s help, Boston emerged as South Carolina’s leader this year and infused her teammates with confidence along the way.

Whenever Boston got the ball Sunday night, she was swarmed by at least two UConn defenders. So, she kicked it out to Destanni Henderson, who had a career-high 26 points on 9-for-20 shooting, and Zia Cooke, who had 11. And she did the grunt work in the paint, helping South Carolina haul in 49 rebounds (including 21 offensive) to UConn’s 24 and making two key blocks in the fourth quarter to prevent the Huskies from regaining any momentum.

(Bri Lewerke/Just Women's Sports)

A’ja Wilson watched Boston with pride from her front-row seat behind the Gamecocks’ bench. When South Carolina was last cutting down the nets in 2017, Wilson was in a similar position to Boston, a junior who overcame two short-lived tournament runs to capitalize finally on the promise of Staley’s program.

Wilson, too, credits much of her growth as a player to her former coach.

“This team is so special,” Wilson said. “When you’re real, when you’re loyal, when you speak the truth, people buy in.”

Boston bought into what Staley was building four years ago. Having narrowed her college choices down to four schools — UConn, Ohio State, Notre Dame and South Carolina — and grappling with the final decision, she called Staley in November 2018. She felt a special connection with the coach, a former player she could learn from, a Black woman she could look up to and, as she calls Staley today, a “second mom off the court.”

Since the day she committed to the program, Boston has taken all the lessons Staley’s given her and evolved into the best player in college basketball and now a champion.

Among the people who wanted a moment with Boston on Sunday night were young girls who stuck around for an hour after the final whistle blew. Hearing her name, Boston stepped away from the noise and made her way from one endline of the court to the other, stopping every few feet to sign hats and sheets of paper and take selfies with fans.

A superstar and a champion, Boston is the pride of South Carolina. A torchbearer of the game, Boston is ever the student of Dawn Staley.

Hannah Withiam is the Managing Editor at Just Women’s Sports. She previously served as an editor at The Athletic and a reporter at the New York Post. Follow her on Twitter @HannahWithiam.

Barcelona to Face Lyon in Champions League Rematch This Weekend

UEFA Women's Champions League Final"Barcelona FC - Olympique Lyonnais"
Saturday's game will be the third UWCL final meeting for Barcelona and Lyon, having previously gone up against each other in 2019 and 2022. (ANP via Getty Images)

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off in Bilbao on Saturday, with a couple of familiar foes set to face off for the trophy.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, making its 11th final appearance since 2010, will go head to head with a Barcelona side making its fourth final appearance in a row.

This will be the third time these two teams meet in the UWCL title game, having previously appeared in the 2019 and 2022 finals. Lyon won both of those prior games against Barcelona, alongside a total of eight Champions League trophies. That’s double that of any other club, with Eintracht Frankfurt coming in a distant second with four. 

Should Barcelona win, this would be the team's third title — breaking a tie for the third in the UWCL total titles race. 

But as these teams return to the UWCL final, it also marks the end of an era for both clubs. The game will be the last for both club managers, as Barcelona’s Jonatan Giráldez and Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor depart for new jobs after the season's end.

Giráldez is set to leave for the NWSL's Washington Spirit, while Bompastor will take over for incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes at Chelsea. Both coaches have earned one UWCL trophy during their tenures, while Bompastor also brought two Champions League trophies to Lyon as a player. She was the first coach to win a UWCL trophy as both a coach and player.

This season, Barcelona is looking for its first quadruple, having won a fifth Liga F title alongside the Copa de La Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

"We hope he can go out with the four trophies because we know how competitive and ambitious he is," Barcelona midfielder Patri Guijarro told ESPN. "It has been a winning era with him in charge and for him to go out with all four trophies would be historic and incredible."

But Lyon's Damaris Egurrola is excited about her team's chances of overcoming Barcelona once again — and to do it in front of family and friends.

"Lyon have something special," she told Forbes ahead of the weekend's final. "We have a great team and we have the players with enough talent to win any match."

The game will be a homecoming for Egurrola, who began her professional career with Athletic Bilbao.

"I’ve been thinking of this day and night," she said. "I’ve been dreaming of playing this match. Having the opportunity to play in San Mames is amazing. This is where it all started for me."

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off Saturday, May 25th at 12 PM ET and is free to stream on DAZN.

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek Headlines a Stacked 2024 French Open

Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico
Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico. (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

The 2024 French Open starts on Sunday, with a match schedule that promises to wrap the short clay court season up in style.

Looking for her fourth title at the major is three-time Roland Garros champion and World No. 1 Iga Swiatek, considered the favorite to win the whole Slam. Three of her four major titles have come at the French tournament. 

Swiatek's career record at the French Open is a dominating 28-2, and she's currently on a 16-game winning streak fueled by victories at tune-up tournaments in Madrid and Rome.

But that doesn't mean she won't face some serious challengers along the way. Get to know some of the Polish tennis champ's strongest competitors.

Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka is ranked No. 2 in the world and faced Swiatek in the finals at both Madrid and Rome. She lost in three sets in Madrid, which included a close third-set tiebreak, before losing in straight sets at the Italian Open. 

She enters the French Open having won the Australian Open in January, successfully defending her title in the first Slam of the season. At last year’s French Open, Sabalenka reached the semifinals — a career best — before being ousted by Karolina Muchová in three sets.

Season record: 25-7

Coco Gauff

Currently sitting at No. 3 in the world, the highest-ranked American on the schedule is none other than Coco Gauff. Gauff won her first major at the US Open last year, and reached the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open. She faced Swiatek in the semifinals of the Italian Open last week, losing in straight sets. 

But her first major final came at the French Open in 2022, before being ousted by Swiatek in the quarterfinals at last year’s French Open. The two are on a crash course for a meeting before the finals, as Gauff anchors the other quadrant on Swiatek’s side of the draw, should they both advance deep into the competition.

Season record: 25-8

Chicago Sky Upset New York to End Liberty’s Unbeaten Streak

chicago sky's angel reese on the court against new york liberty
Angel Reese registered a near double-double against a strong Liberty side. (Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Liberty’s unbeaten streak came to an end on Thursday as Angel Reese and the Chicago Sky got the upset win over New York with a final score of 90-81. 

Angel Reese stood out with a near double-double, registering 13 points and nine rebounds. She’s currently the only rookie this season to exceed 10 points in her first three games, and the first player in Sky history to begin their career with three consecutive double-digit scoring games, per ESPN Stats & Info.

The outcome may not have come as a surprise to Liberty stars Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, who sung Reese’s praises ahead of the game.

"She’s a workhorse," Stewart told The Post. "She doesn’t stop. She’s tough, she’s strong, she’s tough to box out and good at cleaning up for her team offensively and defensively."

"I feel like she’s an energizer bunny," Jones added. "She doesn’t stop moving, she doesn’t stop crashing the boards. Just someone that is gonna be relentless in her approach to getting to the glass and playing tough."

It was the first time Chicago has met New York this season. The game was especially meaningful for new Chicago head coach Teresa Weatherspoon, who led the Liberty for seven years as a player and joined the team's Ring of Honor in 2011.

"This place means a lot to me... I played in that jersey, I adored that jersey, I adored every player that I had an opportunity to play with. The love that I received even today was overwhelming," Weatherspoon reflected after the game.

Following the win, Sky guard Dana Evans had some kind words for her coach.

"I mean, it's just special. She's special," Evans said. "She just breeds confidence in each and every one of us. We love her. We just wanted to go so hard and play hard for her, and I feel like this one was really for her. We really wanted this for her more than anything."

Thursday's victory brings Chicago's record to 2-1, a somewhat unlikely feat given that their offseason featured starter Kahleah Copper getting traded to Phoenix. The Connecticut Sun are now the only undefeated team left in the league this season, and will formidable foes for the Sky as they take their winning streak on the road to Chicago this weekend.

New USWNT Coach Emma Hayes Embracing the Challenge

United States Women's Head Coach Emma Hayes
The ex-Chelsea skipper has officially arrived in the US — now it's time to get down to business. (USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Emma Hayes has officially begun her tenure as USWNT manager ahead of the team’s June friendlies.

Hayes made the rounds on Thursday, appearing on the Today Show and speaking with select media about her goals and underlying principles with the team. It’s a quick turnaround for the decorated coach, who just won the WSL with Chelsea last weekend.

One thing that she won’t do, however, is shy away from the high expectations that come with managing the US. The squad is looking to reinstate its winning reputation at the Paris Olympics this summer following a disappointing World Cup in 2023. 

"I know the challenge ahead of me. There is no denying there is a gap between the US and the rest of the world," she told ESPN. "We have to acknowledge that winning at the highest level isn't what it was 10 years ago. It's a completely different landscape. And my focus is going to be on getting the performances required to play at a high level against the very best nations in the world."

While Hayes was formally hired six months ago to lead the USWNT, her deal stipulated that she remain with Chelsea through the conclusion of their season. In her stead, Twila Kilgore has led the team, with the coach "drip feeding subliminal messages" to the roster on Hayes’s behalf.

"It's a bit ass-upwards," Hayes joked to reporters. "I know about the staff, and the team, and the structure behind it. We got all of that. Now it's time, I need to be with the team."

With Olympics now just two months away, Hayes dropped hints this week regarding her thought process behind building the roster, saying there’s still time for players to make their case.

"You can't go to an Olympics with a completely inexperienced squad. We need our experienced players, but getting that composition right, that's my job between now and June 16th," she said on the Today Show.

"What I can say from my time [in the US] is, I've always loved the attitude towards performance and the expectation to give everything you've got," she later affirmed to reporters.

And as for winning gold?

"I'm never gonna tell anyone to not dream about winning," she added. "But… we have to go step by step, and focus on all the little processes that need to happen so we can perform at our best level.

"I will give it absolutely everything I've got to make sure I uphold the traditions of this team."

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