Aliyah Boston gets going, and South Carolina heads to title game after topping Louisville
Boston scored 23 points, including 15 in the second half, and pulled down 18 rebounds
MINNEAPOLIS — For a portion of the first half Friday night, the South Carolina Gamecocks seemingly forgot that they have a forward who had spent the week collecting player-of-the-year trophies.
By the time the second half came around, they remembered. And now the Gamecocks are heading to Sunday night’s NCAA title game at the Women’s Final Four at the Target Center.
With star-studded junior Aliyah Boston scoring 23 points, including 15 in the second half, and pulling down 18 rebounds, top-ranked South Carolina defeated Louisville 72-59. They move on to play the winner of Friday’s second semifinal between defending champion Stanford and 11-time champion Connecticut.
During the week, Boston was named Player of the Year by the Associated Press, the United States Basketball Writers Association as well as winning the Naismith Award. But in the first half she only got four field-goal attempts, making three of them and scoring eight points.
There was one stretch in the half when the Gamecocks missed seven straight three-point attempts, and weren’t looking much inside for Boston. That coincided with Louisville going on a 12-0 run to turn a 19-10 second-period deficit into a 22-19 lead. The Gamecocks did come back to take a 34-28 halftime lead.
“We have to play through her,’’ said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley. “It doesn’t mean that she has to shoot the ball, but every time she touches the ball she draws a crowd. If we’re able to kick it out — that’s probably a time that we need to take those shots, but I thought we just got in the rhythm of shooting outside shots that really didn’t make any sense. … But we corrected it, and when we started going into her, playing inside out, more shots from the outside started falling.”
Yes, they did. After shooting 2-of-9 on three-pointers in the first half, the Gamecocks were 4-of-8 during a second half when they got the ball inside to Boston. And when she didn’t kick it back out, she shot 5-of-8 in the second half and 4-of-5 from the foul line (6-of-7 for the game. Heck, she even made one of South Carolina’s three-pointers.
The enabled the Gamecocks (34-2) to pull away in the second half. They led by as much as 51-36 in the third period and by as much as 71-56 in the fourth.
“I think the game just opened up,’’ Boston said of the second half. “We were able to continue to move the ball and it opened up for me to get more scoring opportunities.”
Meanwhile, Louisville’s star, guard Hailey Van Lith, didn’t step up the way Boston did. After coming into the Final Four having averaged 21.5 points in four NCAA tournament games, she didn’t even manage half that total Friday.
Van Lith had nine points on 4-of-11 shooting and had four turnovers, although she did have nine rebounds. Van Lith had her first two shots of the game blocked by South Carolina defesnive specialist Brea Beal and she had more turnovers (three) than points (two) in the first half.
“I think it’s just a mentality to have every single game,’’ Beal, who also scored 12 points, said of her defense. “You can’t just turn it on and turn it off when you choose to. … Especially now you just have to lock in and know what your job is to do offensively and defensively.”
The fourth-ranked Cardinals (29-5) were able to stay in the game in the first half thanks guard Emily Engstler, who scored 10 of her 18 points. And Louisville coach Jeff Walz shrugged off the slow start by Van Lith.
“She could get her shot blocked six times, it’s not going to impact her,’’ Walz said. “She’s a competitor. That’s what I love about her. But she adjusted. She took the ball to the basket hard. I was surprised that she wasn’t able to get to the free-throw line once or twice with how hard she was attacking the rim.”
For the Cardinals, though, they once again will home from the Final Four without a trophy. They’ve made if four times since 2009 under Walz, twice losing in the championship game and twice in the semifinals.
“If your narrative wants to be that we can’t win the big game, so be it,’’ Walz said. “But if you want it to be that this is a program that had never been to a Sweet 16 for 32 years of it and now we’ve been to four Final Fours that’s what I’d go with. But that might not sell papers, it might not get clicks.”
As for the Gamecocks, they’re going to be selling plenty of papers and getting ample clicks in South Carolina. They’ve led the NCAA in attendance eight straight seasons, and now they’ll be going for their second national title. They won in 2017, which was their only previous trip to the title game.
“We took forward to other tests to take,’’ Staley said. “Hopefully we’ll have to pass that one in the next game.