MINNEAPOLIS – This time there were tears of joy. South Carolina star forward Aliyah Boston made sure of it.
As confetti rained down on the Target Center floor, all that Boston had worked for and accomplished this season began to sink in. In the game’s waning seconds, she bounced in euphoria on the Gamecocks bench. And then, minutes later, after No. 1 South Carolina had defeated No. 2 UConn, 64-49, to claim this season’s national championship and second in program, the weight of the moment took hold.
“Happy tears,” Boston told ESPN’s Holly Rowe.
One year earlier Boston was moved to tears after missing a put-back layup at the buzzer in South Carolina’s Final Four contest against Arizona. This season’s National Player of the Year made sure Sunday’s victory didn’t come down to the final play.
On the game’s first possession, Gamecocks senior forward Victaria Saxton hauled in the first of her five, and the team’s 21, offensive rebounds and guard Destanni Henderson promptly buried her first three-pointer of the night, en route to scoring a career-high 26 points. There may have been more than 39 minutes left on the clock but a definitive statement had already been made.
“The first five minutes, I thought they came out and set the tone right then and there for how the game was going to be played,” Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said afterward.
South Carolina’s lead only grew as its size and physicality proved overpowering. With his team trailing 11–2, largely because of an 8–1 rebounding disadvantage, Auriemma called his first timeout hoping to have his group collect themselves. But as he did, South Carolina fans sitting behind their team’s bench waved white towels and rejoiced. Their cheers were just getting started.
The Gamecocks entered the second quarter up 12, having hauled in seven offensive rebounds compared to none from the Huskies. While a 9-0 second quarter push from UConn was central in reducing the margin to eight by halftime, the Huskies still had no answer for their opponent’s interior presence, both then and coming out of the locker room.
“We knew it was going to be the deciding factor,” Aureimma said. “We knew tonight that if we didn’t hold our own on the boards that it was going to be a really bad night for us, and that’s exactly what happened.”
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UConn star freshman Azzi Fudd had proved instrumental in the Huskies reaching Sunday’s title game. But Auriemma got afterward that Fudd felt sick overnight and was forced to miss shootaround the day of the national championship. It wasn’t until the first possession of the second half that she attempted a field goal — it missed — and her second shot more than two minutes later was blocked. Fudd finished with just three points, her lowest output since Nov. 22, when the Gamecocks defeated the Huskies by 16 in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament final.
The result meant that more was put on the shoulders of UConn sophomore Paige Bueckers, but Auriemma, who lost his first national championship in his 12th appearance, said afterward “that never works when one person is trying to” carry an entire offense. Plus, even the Minnesota native was disrupted by the length of her opponent as her first points didn’t come until the 8:35 mark of the second quarter. She finished as the lone Huskies player in double figures, with 14.
Boston didn’t play her best game on Sunday night. But the tournament’s Most Outstanding player didn’t have to. Five of her 11 points came in the opening frame — a statement made — and her 16 rebounds led to the Gamecocks, who more than doubled UConn’s total. It was a fitting conclusion for a team that was No. 1 nationally in both offensive rating rate and total rebounding rate.
South Carolina entered the season as the preseason No. 1 team. In each and every poll that followed, they remained there and certainly showed why against the Huskies. Any Gamecocks player who appeared in 10 or more minutes finished with a positive on-court point differential.
“This journey of being a coach has been truly gratifying,” Staley said. “I have to reflect on this part of it. Like it comes with a great deal of pressure, pressure because we were the No. 1 team in the country throughout the entire season, pressure to come into the NCAA tournament and be the favorites, by now people if not all. ”
Former Gamecocks star A’ja Wilson watched the victory from the first row of spectators. And with 4:45 to play in the game after Henderson buried a jumper for her 21st and 22nd points of the night, she let out a shrug and shimmy. Less than 30 seconds later, after Henderson converted a transition layup, Wilson bounced in her seat. Her celebration was just beginning, though, as the court afterward she basked in the moment with the current Gamecocks, posing for a photo with Boston, among others, as the current torch-bearer held up a decal denoting they had the national championship.
While Staley took home her second title on Sunday night, Boston claimed her first. Asked afterward what her goal for next year was, Boston’s response was definitive.
“Same as this year,” the junior star said.
It’s certainly possible more confetti is in her future. If South Carolina looks as overpowering as it was against UConn, more smiles and tears of joy await.
More South Carolina Coverage:
• SI Weekly Podcast: Aliyah Boston’s Dominance
• She Wanted a Scholarship. Now She’s the Face of the CBB.
• Meet South Carolina’s Hype Woman