April 1, 2023
Despite Final Four loss, legacy of South Carolina’s ‘freshies’ will endure
Boston: 'Four years went by really fast'
DALLAS – During the 2019-20 season, the South Carolina rookie class of Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal, Laeticia Amihere and Olivia Thompson nicknamed themselves “the freshies.” As the seasons went by, they never shed the nickname, almost like everyone was hoping they’d never grow up.
On Friday, the freshies’ four-year run together abruptly came to an end in the Final Four. The defending national champions and No. 1 overall seed Gamecocks lost 77-73 to No. 2 seed Iowa, which got 41 points from consensus National Player of the Year Caitlin Clark.
The Gamecocks had been trying to do something just two programs had done before: repeat as national champions while going undefeated. (They were also trying to win another title in Dallas, the site of the program’s 2017 title — a game that several of the freshies recalled watching on television as high schoolers.) South Carolina entered the NCAA Tournament 36-0, the first team to enter the tournament undefeated since 2018, and had a 64% chance to win it all.
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The players spoke in the days leading up to the national semifinal about the challenges that come with that, including the pressure, how teams “play us harder and harder and harder,” and the difficulty of being consistently elite every day.
“A lot of people don’t understand how hard it is to be at the top,” Cooke told reporters on Thursday. “It’s actually harder to be at the top than anywhere else, I believe.”
On Friday, South Carolina showed several of the traits that made it special this season, but it also had uncharacteristic struggles on both ends. Cooke was the only Gamecocks starter to score in the first half, pouring in 18 points on 8-for-13 shooting to keep them in the game. She hit each of her first three shots — two jump shots and a transition layup — and 12 minutes into the game, Cooke already had 14 and was the game’s hottest shooter.
“I think pressure can either make you or break you,” Cooke said on Thursday. “I just want to use the pressure I have in the best way possible to make me go out there and play very hard.”
Eventually, Amihere, junior center Kamilla Cardoso and redshirt freshman guard Raven Johnson started to chip in for South Carolina, and it looked like the tide might turn for South Carolina in the second quarter. About 90 seconds into the quarter, down by nine, Amihere got an offensive rebound and an and-one. Cardoso blocked a shot on the ensuing Iowa possession and corralled the rebound, finding Cooke for a transition layup plus the foul. After a basket by Clark, Amihere got two more offensive rebounds but lost the ball — and then stole it right back to fuel another transition layup by Cooke.
All that effort, though, only cut the Iowa lead to four, and Iowa fifth-year forward/center Monika Czinano made it a six-point game again on the next possession. It would continue like that all game long, with the crowd roaring for Iowa and the unusually quiet South Carolina fans holding out hope that their team would figure things out and go on a patented Gamecocks run.
Iowa was physical with South Carolina and packed the paint, daring players such as Johnson and sophomore Bree Hall to shoot. It worked: South Carolina attempted 20 3-pointers, well above its season average of 14 entering the game, and made just four. Defensively, head coach Dawn Staley told reporters that the Gamecocks had trouble with their spacing against Clark and Iowa’s other shooters, and the Hawkeyes used a steady diet of screens to keep South Carolina off balance and open up lanes for Clark. Iowa’s 77 points are tied for the most that South Carolina has allowed over the past two seasons.
South Carolina enjoyed its usual rebounding advantage, outrebounding Iowa 49-25 and 26-5 on the offensive glass. The Gamecocks set program records this season in several rebounding categories and rank second in NCAA history in rebounding margin. But for once, rebounding couldn’t push the Gamecocks over the top as their offense sputtered. South Carolina attempted 20 more shots than Iowa but converted just two more.
“We just didn’t perform,” Staley said. “We didn’t make [the] plays [that] we needed to make, especially down the stretch. That hasn’t been us all season long.”
Cooke told reporters on Thursday that this Final Four was “emotional” for the team as the last opportunity for everyone to play together. Several of the freshies could return for a fifth season, but they could also start their professional careers, with Boston being the consensus No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft if she leaves.
So when the buzzer sounded and Iowa’s players leaped and hugged and cheered together, the Gamecocks faced a groundswell of emotions. “It was kind of just an end of an era, it feels like,” Boston told reporters about what she was thinking at the buzzer. “We had a special group.”
The Gamecocks moved briskly through the handshake line and to the locker room, but one player slowed after the handshake line as the emotions spilled over. It was Cooke, and Boston wrapped her up in an extended hug, Boston’s 6’5 frame nearly swallowing her 5’9 teammate. Amihere stopped as well to console Cooke.
“I just told her, ‘You can’t hang your head low because you did really good. You kept us in this game,’” Boston said. “… Zia kept attacking. She hit big shots. She worked really hard. Four years went by really fast, but I told her no matter what she does next, she’s ready for it.”
Though the loss keeps South Carolina from entering rarified air with back-to-back national championships, it doesn’t diminish the freshies’ legacy in Columbia. Since their arrival in fall 2019, they have combined for over 5,500 points, 3,000 rebounds and 500 blocks while playing over 13,000 minutes. In that time, the Gamecocks have a 129-9 record, three SEC Tournament titles, three Final Four appearances (in as many tries because the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled), and a national championship. This season, the Gamecocks set a program record for wins and beat nine ranked teams.
“I’m going to remember a fun year,” Boston said postgame. “I think we had so many great experiences, just winning — how many games was that? 36 games. I feel like that’s unbelievable.
“And Coach told us in the locker room. She was like, ‘This is rare. Teams can’t say they did that. Even though this didn’t end the way we wanted it to, those 36 games prior to this [were] really good.’”
Boston has led the freshies, and the nation, from the moment she stepped on campus. She was named National Freshman of the Year in 2020 by several outlets; was a two-time SEC Player of the Year and four-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year; was a four-time AP All-American; and was the consensus National Player of the Year in 2022. She also holds five program records, including career double-doubles and career rebounds.
“There will not be another Aliyah Boston,” Staley declared on Thursday, and she expanded upon that after the loss.
“She’s meant everything to our program,” Staley said. “She has been the cornerstone of our program for the past four years. She elevated us. She raised the standard of how to approach basketball.”
Boston’s statistics aren’t as eye-popping this season as they were last season, as she is averaging about four fewer points and three fewer rebounds. But according to Staley, that is emblematic of the approach that makes all the freshies special — and makes their team elite. Boston has sacrificed individual statistics; Amihere and Thompson have sacrificed starting roles or playing time; Cooke has learned and played multiple positions, including point guard at times; and Beal has embraced her role as a defensive stopper to fit what the team needed each year.
“Aliyah had the best year of her career [last season] as far as stats. But I think this year is the best year of her career because she’s able to pivot; she’s able to give us what we need when we need it,” Staley told reporters on Tuesday. “… [All] the freshies have sacrificed individually at one stage of their career for the greater good of our team.”
And as the freshies have sacrificed, embraced the pressure of being at the top, and worked to be consistently great, they have taught the underclassmen about all those things. They have helped them stay confident and showed them how to lead going forward.
“They always showed me what pro habits are, and they showed me every day what it’s like to be a pro,” Johnson said postgame. “The way they talked to us younger players and motivated us, I really cherish that. I’m definitely going to take pride in that.”
On Friday, the freshies closed a chapter of their careers together, two days sooner than they had planned. They experienced one of the toughest parts of growing up: the disappointment of committing fully and sacrificing for a dream but still coming up short. But their legacy remains, as one of the best classes not only in South Carolina history, but in the sport as a whole.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided and Power Plays.