DALLAS — Aliyah Boston ended her college career with the same poise that defined it.
When No. 1 South Carolina’s undefeated season came to an end in the Final Four against No. 2 Iowa, the senior forward was struck by the enormity of the moment. “When that buzzer went off, it was kind of just an end of an era, it feels like,” Boston said. But she did not allow herself to dwell on that. Instead, she felt called to protect a teammate. As fellow senior Zia Cooke became emotional, Boston quickly moved not just to console her but to shield her from the television cameras, granting her a moment of privacy. And then Boston went to sit in front of the cameras herself: She was soon fulfilling her press obligations with her typical grace and equanimity.
Aliyah Boston: a true leader in victory and defeat ❤️ pic.twitter.com/8ssW6WEClU— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 1, 2023
On Saturday, Boston announced she would forgo her last year of college eligibility to declare for the WNBA draft, where she is the presumptive No. 1 pick for the Indiana Fever. That ends a decorated career for her with the Gamecocks. She has won the Wooden Award and the Wade Trophy; she has been named the Naismith College Player of the Year; she is a three-time unanimous first-team All-American; she led her team to a national championship and three consecutive Final Fours. Ask her team about her impact, however, and no one mentions the awards. Instead? They talk about the example Boston set.
“She’s meant everything to our program,” South Carolina coach Dawn 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.”
This season was remarkable for South Carolina. It was the wire-to-wire No. 1 and stayed undefeated until the Final Four. It established the best defense in the sport. It led Division I in a slew of statistics: No one could touch its average margin of victory (28.6), two-point baskets per game (25.9), rebound rate (63%) or blocks per game (8.8). No one held their opponents to fewer points per scoring attempt (0.79) or to a lower effective field goal percentage (35.6%). It was not simply that the Gamecocks dominated teams all year. It was that they deconstructed them so thoroughly as to make them look unrecognizable. This was, of course, a team effort from a squad with the best depth in the country. But much of it came from Boston.
That meant absorbing blows as opposing defenses focused in on her. (“She’s ready to see single coverage,” Staley said when asked on Friday whether Boston should remain in college.) It meant working to facilitate both offense and defense through the players around her rather than trying to control them herself. It meant sacrificing her own numbers—letting her statistics take a step back from her incredible season last year—to better her team.
“She’s a complete person,” Staley said. “She’s a great human being. You could tell that she’s got great parenting and a great foundation that she shares herself—like, she’s a sacrificer. She’s a great friend. She’s a great teammate. She is somebody that you want to build your program around that you know is safe. She’s always going to make the right decision for our team, even if it is a detriment to her personally.”
The pair have formed a special relationship during Boston’s four years in Columbia.
“She just helped me grow up,” Boston said of Staley after the team won the SEC tournament. “She helped me find my voice, especially being a Black woman in the sport and in society, and I’m just so thankful for her.”
Staley’s players frequently talk about how much it means to play for someone who looks like them, who supports them so vocally, who challenges them to be their best. In a decade and a half at South Carolina, she has created an environment where players frequently come back to campus and stay connected with the program. That was on display Friday, as a pair of alumnae sat in the front row, both clad in old Staley jerseys: Two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson was in her coach’s old Charlotte Sting gear while her teammate Chelsea Gray was beside her in a Staley Team USA jersey. They’re just a few of the many former players who have stayed connected to the program as leaders, and now, Boston will step into that role herself.
“A lot of the alum, they come back. They come to practice,” Boston said before the Final Four. “They want to support us and give us tips where we are, and they just want to see us grow. For us helping the underclassmen right now, they’re our sisters. We want to see them shine, because we understand at some point we’re not going to be on the same team as them, and they’re going to be the new leaders of the program. So we want them to continue the tradition that we have.”
To hear the underclassmen tell it, Boston and her fellow seniors have taken their obligation to that tradition seriously.
“Every day, she just shows us what it’s like to be a pro,” redshirt freshman Raven Johnson said in the locker room before the Final Four. “She teaches younger players about leadership… There’s not a day you don’t hear her voice. She’s always talking, she’s always uplifting people.”
Her voice may be absent from the program next year as she departs campus. But she’s ensured her legacy will endure.