April 1, 2022 

The slow inevitability of Aliyah Boston sinks Louisville

23 and 18 to put the Gamecocks one win from the title

MINNEAPOLIS — Aliyah Boston is in no hurry.

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She received the ball in the paint — seemingly always in elite post position, and this time was no different, her Gamecocks already ahead 9-2, putting the Cardinals into an early hole they’d never truly climb out of, winning the first national semifinal Friday night, 72-59 — but despite the double, triple-teams that always come, she never rushed. She dribbled once, twice, and then used her strength to rise up through a pair of Louisville defenders to the hoops.

Jeff Walz called timeout. But there really wasn’t much to figure out.

“She’s 6’5,” Walz said of Boston’s skill set. “That impacts it. She has good hands. She moves well. She finishes on both sides of the floor. She goes after the ball. She’s good. She’s really good. It doesn’t take me to tell you what she’s good at. I’ve got a six-year-old that can sit there and watch the game and be like, yeah, she’s good.”

Boston’s never a comet. She’s a decision tree that grows slowly from the ground, armed with the confidence that whatever she’s going to attempt, it’s probably going to work.

This was the round South Carolina fell last season, Boston missing a shot at the buzzer, collapsing in an emotional outpouring. But this time, against a team that inspires extreme emotions, from Emily Engstler’s relentless disruptions on defense to Hailey Van Lith’s broad cross-section of an offensive game, Boston seemed to know all night that she would be enough.

South Carolina as a whole has a very high floor, thanks to the second-ranked defense in the country and the nation’s top rebounding rate. This is inextricably linked to Boston herself, of course.

So was an offensive performance in the upper register of South Carolina’s range, with three threes in the first minutes of the third quarter alone, and a team shooting percentage that stayed north of 50 percent for much of the night, settling in at a more-than-respectable 48.2 percent, a far cry from their early-tournament struggles.

“I thought our players just really played with a lot of poise when we weren’t turning the ball over,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said postgame. “I thought we were just ready for — we were probably ready for a little bit more jump. They just went to a regular 2-3. I just thought we saw it, we knew what we were going to do, we talked about it in shootaround today, and our players were just there to execute.”

But then there is that defense: Van Lith scored 20 or more in each of the first four Louisville games. Against South Carolina, she finished with nine, and was scoreless in the first quarter.

It is just so hard to score on these Gamecocks. You could see every twist, turn and flick of the wrist in Van Lith’s arsenal, a capable finisher at the rim whose strength overcomes her 5’7 height, simply to get the ball up on the rim against the endless bigs South Carolina throws at opponents.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals threw three defenders on Boston late in the first half, trailing by two — Boston dribbled once, twice, then emerged like a vision from out of that Louisville trio to finish strong at the rim.

Nor is Boston alone among these South Carolina bigs who operate not by simple force — the beauty of the high-low finishes from Victaria Saxton and Kamilla Cardoso are products of Staley figuring out how to get what offense she needs from her group when the shots from outside aren’t falling. When they are? Forget it.

Even so, Engstler played the typical Engstler game, 18 points and nine rebounds, a block and four steals. At one key point in the second quarter, Engstler recorded consecutive steals on two possessions, ripping the ball with one hand out of a South Carolina offensive player, passing it ahead to herself and completing a do-it-yourself fastbreak. Van Lith, too, grabbed nine boards despite her size, further reminder that she transcends the typical definitions of a WNBA prospect with two years of eligibility to go.

But it all took so much work just to match the Boston rebounding total, and it was Boston making the play necessary when Louisville threatened to threaten. The Cardinals closed to six, late third, and Destanni Henderson missed a three. Boston grabbed the offensive board, dribbled once, twice, and finished up through a double team, drew the foul on Engstler, her fourth. Six became nine, then 11 when Boston scored again early in the fourth quarter.

“I think it was really big just because it gave us momentum and it also got somebody else in foul trouble, which we could always benefit from,” Boston said of that moment.”

Louisville stayed within striking distance, at least theoretically, until Engstler fouled out midway through the fourth. That was it, though really, it is hard to envision a scenario where Staley wouldn’t find a way to get the ball to the player she’s spoken of in terms she thought she’d retired forever when A’ja Wilson graduated.

Now Boston, who made back-to-back Final Fours, something Staley enjoyed publicly needling Wilson for failing to do, stands one win from a national title, capping a year in which she’s won every major national player of the year award and eclipsed 16 win shares while no one else has reached 13.

“With the awards, I’m really blessed, but my main focus is bringing home a national championship Sunday night, so I’m just really locked in on that,” Boston said.

Who can watch her and feel like her move toward that goal is anything short of inevitable?

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.

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