South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston: ‘Every time we step on that floor, everybody wants to beat us’

Aliyah Boston, the frontcourt phenomenon for the University of South Carolina’s women’s basketball team, comes across as a genuinely humble person in conversation. A polished speaker (she is a communications major who plans on going into broadcast journalism once her playing days are over), Boston redirects much of the praise surrounding her own success toward her family. “My mom told us, my sister and I, that we need to pick what we wanted to do,” Boston tells the Guardian. “She talked to us a lot, even when we were younger, about going to college and coming out without any student loans. So, she wanted us to get really good at something … so we picked basketball.”

What started as a method for securing university scholarships, however, has since morphed into the start of a potentially great basketball career. Boston’s future in professional basketball is promising – she is the consensus No 1 pick in next month’s WNBA draft – but, as she and her teammates begin their NCAA tournament title defense on Friday against Norfolk State, it’s worth taking the time to appreciate everything Boston has accomplished at the college level over the last four years. In March 2023, Boston is the Everything Everywhere All at Once of women’s college basketball – she has won just about every award there is.

South Carolina’s average margin of victory

Cataloguing all of her personal accolades would require its own article, so to give just a partial list: Boston is the reigning Naismith College Player of the Year as well as, simultaneously, the reigning Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. She is the first player, male or female, to win both national awards in the same season. Boston is also the reigning Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA’s women’s tournament and, while her national honors go on, Boston’s individual dominance is even more persistent at the regional level. South Carolina compete in one of college sports’ most cutthroat athletic leagues, the Southeastern Conference and, despite the high level of competition, Boston is the two-time reigning SEC Player of the Year, the two-time reigning SEC tournament MVP (for her performance in the SEC postseason), and the four-time reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year (in other words, she has won the award every year of her college career).

To focus entirely on Boston’s individual accomplishments, however, is to overlook the most impressive aspect of her greatness. To paraphrase basketball Hall of Famer Bill Russell: the way Boston plays, her team wins. In fact, the team has been on a steady, upward trajectory throughout her collegiate career. Although the South Carolina’s women’s basketball program had been on the ascendant for over a decade before Boston’s arrival (a rise which, not coincidentally, corresponds with the hiring of head coach Dawn Staley in 2008) and had even won its first NCAA tournament in 2017, Boston’s freshman season (2020) was a tipping point for the team. For example, 2020 was the first season in which South Carolina ended the regular season ranked first in the nation. Since then, the team has gone on to finish the season as the country’s highest ranked team on two additional occasions, including this season.

Aliyah Boston is the first player, male or female, to win both the Naismith College Player of the Year and Naismith Defensive Player of the Year awards. Photograph: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Indeed, Boston thinks Staley could succeed if she ever went on to coach in the NBA – not that she wants her mentor to leave.

“She’s not going anywhere. Put that in there, she is not going anywhere,” says Boston. “If she went to the NBA … I think they would have the same respect and listen and I think they would be the winningest team in the NBA.”

Owing to Covid, however, regular season success didn’t translate into national championship glory during Boston’s first season – the NCAA was forced to cancel March Madness in 2020. The following season, however, with the tournament back on, South Carolina advanced to the Final Four before losing by a single point to eventual champions Stanford in heartbreaking fashion (Boston was one of two South Carolina players to miss a potential game winner in the final seconds). Just one year later after that disappointing finish, however, Boston led South Carolina to the 2022 national championship.

“It almost feels like stepping stones,” says Boston. “And, now, you’re on top of it and, you know, everybody is coming for you.” That’s putting it mildly. Boston and her South Carolina teammates are not only the reigning national champions, but are also heavily favored to defend their title this year. There’s a reason why South Carolina are so highly regarded – the team enters this year’s tournament undefeated.

The added pressure of trying to maintain a perfect record doesn’t seem to faze Boston. “It’s been honestly amazing,” she says. “Every time we step on that floor, everybody wants to beat us … embracing that, I think, helps our team stay level-headed.”

Despite her team’s collective success, Boston’s individual scoring and rebounding numbers have actually decreased this season, a fact that doesn’t seem to bother her. “The numbers don’t really matter,” Boston says. “I’d rather my numbers look like this and our record look like what it looks like right now, than me scoring 30 points and our record [being worse].” Boston’s diminished scoring this year can also be partly explained by the consistent double-teams (or even triple-teams) opposing teams’ defenses deploy in desperation to slow her down.

“[The double teams were] frustrating at first. At the beginning of the season it was a lot more frustrating than it is now. I think I’ve been able to find my away around it,” Boston says, before adding, “and through it.” Splitting time between the forward and center positions, the 6ft 5in Boston often mentions her fondness for a physical, contact-heavy style of basketball. “Some people like to shy away from contact, but I’ve always been embracing it,” she says. Boston thinks her physical style of play initially started as a response to the jeers of opposing teams’ parents. “When I was younger, I played on courts with the boys,” she remembers. “And, their dads were basically like, ‘Don’t lose to a girl!’… and I was always like, ‘If you’re going to try and bully me, I’m going to try and hit back.’”

The on-court success facilitated by Boston’s physical playing style has translated into off-court opportunities that may not have been possible even just a few years ago. Her career has happened to flourish at a time when women’s basketball is experiencing significant changes. For example, Boston’s career has been bisected by the NCAA’s 2021 decision to allow college athletes to license their names, images, and likenesses (NIL) for financial gain. Thus, given the timing, Boston has experienced life both as a student-athlete compensated primarily through scholarships as well as life as a young professional able to segue her public profile into business opportunities. “I wish [NIL had started] freshman year,” Boston says. “It’s a big thing. It gives student athletes time to start their life ahead of schedule … it gives us a head start.”

Aliyah Boston
Boston believes South Carolina coach Dawn Staley would thrive as an NBA coach, but insists: ‘She’s not going anywhere.’ Photograph: Elsa/Getty Images

This ability of NIL to transform Boston’s life has been amplified by a concurrent surge of interest in women’s college basketball. University of South Carolina women’s basketball team, in particular, maintains a huge and dedicated fan base. Averaging more than 12,000 attendees at every home game, South Carolina has led women’s college basketball in attendance for eight years running and, moreover, South Carolina’s women’s games attract bigger crowds than the vast majority of men’s college basketball teams in the country. Such numbers haven’t gone unnoticed by the sports business world. Among other developments, last year Klutch Sports Group (the sports agency heavily associated with NBA star LeBron James) launched a women’s basketball division for the first time (Boston was one of the new division’s first batch of clients).

Such advances feel overdue. It was just two years ago that a viral TikTok video drew attention to the discrepancy in facilities available to women’s and men’s college basketball teams. According to Boston, the situation has improved since then. “Last year was a lot better,” she says. “I’m glad attention was brought to it.”

The business opportunities made possible by NIL, along with South Carolina’s on-court success (and off-court popularity), have helped Boston build a bright future for herself that will likely include not only the WNBA, but also playing for the US at the 2024 Olympics (Boston has previously represented the US on various youth teams in both full-court basketball and 3×3 tournaments – she’s open to competing in both competitions in 2024). Despite these potentially distracting thoughts of the future, however, Boston remains focused on the present. When asked what’s on her mind at the moment, she replies coolly, “Right now? Norfolk State. We’re taking it one game at a time, you can’t really look forward.” Not yet, at least.

Source of data and images: theguardian

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