Aliyah Boston leads No. 1 South Carolina to Women’s Final after win over Louisville

MINNEAPOLIS — The team that has been No. 1 in women’s basketball since the start of this season, South Carolina, will play for the NCAA championship on Sunday.

The Gamecocks, seeded No. 1 overall, beat fellow No. 1 Louisville 72-59 at Target Center in the Final Four women’s semifinal on Friday.

South Carolina (34-2) will advance to the NCAA Finals for the second time in program history. The Gamecocks won the 2017 National Championship Game. South Carolina lost in the SEC Finals last month on a late 3-pointer from Kentucky, but will now compete for the title that matters most.

“I think we had instances late in the season where we didn’t take care of business in the fourth quarter,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “So I know it’s in the back of our players’ heads. It was in the back of my mind. And there were nine of us, I think, at the start of the fourth quarter, and I’m just like, ‘ OK here we go. ‘

“I think with anything, life in general, it’s going to throw tests at you. You’re going to have to pass the tests or you’re going to have to retake them. I thought we’ve been put in positions where we don’t We didn’t pass the test – against Kentucky – and they made us pay for it. And we had other cases during the tournament where we played him, and we took it to another level.

Stepping up is exactly what the Gamecocks did on Friday.

South Carolina junior post player Aliyah Boston saw her double-double streak come to an end at 27 in the Gamecocks’ Elite Eight win over Creighton. But she came back in the double-double on Friday, finishing with 23 points and 18 rebounds. She also had four assists and looked like someone who has won every National Player of the Year award so far.

“With the awards, I’m truly blessed,” Boston said. “But my main goal is to win a national championship on Sunday night, so I’m really locked in on that.”

Boston, which also won Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, anchored a Gamecocks defense that made it tough for Louisville, which finished its season 29-5.

After the 66-65 national semifinal loss to Stanford last year, in which it missed what would have been a game-winning backhand just before the buzzer, Boston was left in tears. She’s seen the video of her angsty reaction far too many times since and has spoken of being determined not to have such an experience in the Final Four again.

“Looking back to the start of the season last year, we just knew we hadn’t pulled it off,” said Boston, who was shedding “tears of joy” after the game. “But it’s not something we kept thinking about because we knew it was a new team. We have a lot more depth so we just have to come and play every night.”

Friday’s match, however, didn’t have the kind of drama that last year’s semi-final did. South Carolina took an 11-2 lead as the Gamecocks hit five of their first 10 shots and the Cardinals just 1 of 6. And for the most part, that set the tone for the rest of the game. Louisville ran its races, but South Carolina controlled the contest.

South Carolina led 17-10 after the first quarter, in which the Cardinals were largely limited to jump shots. It was the first time since Jan. 23 against Wake Forest that the Cardinals trailed after the first quarter.

The Cardinals fought back, however. At 6:48 of the second quarter, forward Emily Engstler stole a pass and raced into the layup, giving Louisville its first lead at 20-19.

At halftime, the Gamecocks again led 34-28, trailing Boston by eight points and eight rebounds. The good news for the Cardinals is that they were under six despite guard Hailey Van Lith being limited to two points. The bad news is that Van Lith’s night didn’t improve much in the second half. After scoring at least 20 points in Louisville’s first four games of the NCAA Tournament, she was limited to nine on Friday.

“They did a really good job of making it difficult for me to get on the ball,” Van Lith said. “They obviously weren’t going to let me touch. They basically kept my face on me the whole game. I played a bit passive, with their length. I needed to go earlier and be more aggressive, but they did a good job of executing their game plan with me.”

One of the players primarily responsible for limiting Van Lith was South Carolina guard Brea Beal, known for his defense.

“I think it’s just a mentality to have every game,” Beal said. “You can’t just turn it on and off whenever you want. Especially now, you just have to lock in and know what your job is offensively and defensively.”

Engstler committed his fourth foul with 4.2 seconds left in the third quarter, after which the Gamecocks led 57-48. Then the transfer from Syracuse, which has brought so much energy to the Cardinals this season, fouled with 4:56 left in the game and buried his head in his hands on the Louisville bench. In her last college game — she declared for the upcoming WNBA Draft — she had 18 points and nine rebounds.

South Carolina had four other players besides Boston who finished in double figures: Brea Beal had 12 points, Destanni Henderson 11, and Victaria Saxton and Zia Cooke 10 each.

South Carolina will face Stanford or UConn in the national championship game; the Gamecocks beat both teams in the regular season. Their win over UConn was 73-57 on Nov. 22 in the Battle 4 Atlantis Championship game in the Bahamas. They defeated Stanford 65-61 in Columbia, South Carolina on December 21.

“Is there an advantage? No. There is no advantage,” Staley said of having already defeated both teams. “When you’re playing for a national league, it’s the team that can get into the habit quickly and stay there.”