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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.