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The South Carolina game ritual started by Aliyah Boston’s mom

Alilyah Boston practices before South Carolina meets Iowa in the Final Four on Friday night. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

DALLAS — Aliyah Boston takes free practice seriously.

It’s full of music and fanfare, a chance for spectators to see the Final Four teams in action, prior to the big games. But Boston’s cuts are sharp, her passes crisp. Her garnet braids hang down her back, blending into a South Carolina jersey of the same color. She sings along to Beyoncé’s “You Can’t Break My Soul,” and in between shooting drills and push-ups, she waves to little girls in the stands as they call her name.

And while Boston is focused on practice, a set of blue eyes is focused on her. They belong to Bryn Archie, a 10-year-old with a blonde ponytail sporting a white No. 4 jersey for her favorite player.

When practice is over, Boston rushes over to take a photo with Bryn. This is Bryn’s second time meeting Boston, but the first that she remembers. She was “really little the first time,” she says, but her mom, Lori, confirms that when Bryn was 4 or 5, she did meet Boston.

Whether she remembers or not doesn’t matter. Aliyah is her favorite player. “She’s good at basketball,” Bryn says. “And she’s a good person.”

The basketball part Boston did largely on her own, but the good person that Bryn admires is a product of Al and Cleone, who are sitting on the other side of the gym. It’s through her parents that Aliyah is connected to the Archie family. Lori and her husband have spent years vacationing in Saint Thomas, where the Bostons reside and Aliyah grew up. One day, they met the Bostons, and a conversation about football — the Eagles and the Cowboys to be exact — led to a friendship. As Bryn grew to love basketball, she had a role model in Aliyah.

The Archies, who live in Dallas, and the Bostons have been talking about the Final Four since November.

“Al told us then he had already booked his hotel,” Lori says with a laugh. “He was very confident that they would be here.”

South Carolina, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, enters Friday night’s Final Four game against No. 2 seed Iowa with the edge. They’ll have to contend with Naismith and AP Player of the Year Caitlin Clark, but on their side the undefeated Gamecocks have Boston, back-to-back Naismith Coach of the Year Dawn Staley and the deepest bench in the sport.

Al and Cleone know how special this opportunity is. For Aliyah to have a chance at two national championships is an accomplishment players dream of. But the on-court achievements are not nearly as special as watching the impact their daughter has on others.

“That’s my favorite part,” Al says, pointing across the stands to Lori and Bryn as they wave.

And the Archies aren’t the only ones here to see Boston. A whole crowd of kids call her name, screaming in excitement when she turns to wave. After Bryn, several others line up for photos before Aliyah has to leave, and they all watch as she runs off the court and into the tunnel.

Even Al and Cleone get their share of the spotlight.

Cleone has a schedule of interviews in Dallas, where reporters hope to learn more about her daughter. The two were even approached for a photo while they watched Aliyah’s practice.

“Do you know who I am?” Al asked, confused.

“Oh yes!” the woman replied.

The interaction gave Al and Cleone a good laugh; Al jokingly blames Cleone for being the one people recognize. But even if others don’t recognize the Bostons in person, they know who they are. After all, they raised one of the country’s best, most impactful players.

Through Aliyah’s rise from the best player on Saint Thomas to one of the best in the NCAA, the Bostons have stayed the same. At the core of their relationship with Aliyah, and with each other, is their relationship with God.

Before every game, Cleone sends Aliyah a devotion. She never plans them out in advance, not even for a game like South Carolina’s Final Four matchup with Iowa. Instead, she prays, and the message comes to her.

At first, she just sent the messages to Aliyah, but over the years, other players have been added to the text thread: Zia Cooke, Brea Beal, Kamilla Cardoso and Victaria Saxton. They start with “Good Morning ladies,” and end with, “Love you ladies.”

Sandwiched in between the greeting and the sign-off is whatever message God sent to Cleone. Whatever the players need that day.

During the Sweet 16, Cleone told them, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.” She signed off with: “With the help of God, victory is your portion. Love you ladies.”

And for the Elite Eight: “No matter how difficult the challenge, when we spread our wings of faith and allow the winds of God’s spirit to lift us, no obstacle is too great to overcome. Seek God. Trust in God. Be Victorious.”

(Jacob Kupferman/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Al takes a different approach. His job is to send Aliyah videos of players he thinks can give her inspiration. Recently, he sent her clips of Hakeem Olajuwon and his famous hook shot. Like Cleone, he doesn’t plan ahead. Instead, he waits for inspiration to strike.

“Tonight I’ll have a bottle of Pinot Noir and it will come to me,”Al joked, as Clone laughed along with him.

Aliyah Boston’s stage is set. On Friday, when she wakes up, she will open her phone to a message from Cleone. Then, she will watch clips of basketball greats sent from her father. Al will call her, too. And finally, she will take the court, attempting to lead her team to a spot in Sunday’s national championship game and make history once more.

When she does, Bryn Archie’s blue eyes will follow her from one end of the court to the other.

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.