MINNEAPOLIS – Excesses don’t always happen in sports. The shot that bounces off the edge is stuff of sad memories and hard dreams. For athletes used to success, the split second that can separate them is painful.
For the post-South Carolina player, Alia Boston, it was both a trigger and an aggravation. In last season’s national semifinals, her attempt to back off rebounded as the bell rang, eliminating the Gamecocks with a one-point loss to Stanford. Her painful reaction, compounded with emotion, was repeated over and over again. Not that Boston wanted or needed to see her again.
Now, though, the Boston National Championships with the Gamecocks supersedes any previous disappointments.
With Sunday’s 64-49 win over UConn as Boston earned 11 points and 16 rebounds against her 29th double this season and was selected as the fourth-best player finalist, South Carolina has completed a race over the wires this season. The first team in women’s college basketball, coach Don Staley awarded her second NCAA title.
It’s the culmination of a year of maturity in which Boston has become the best player in the women’s college game, has improved in all her skills and has come to realize that her voice as a black woman and preeminent athlete is a gift she wants to use. From underneath that missed shot in San Antonio, Boston decided they wouldn’t miss their next chance at a national championship.
South Carolina’s first title, in 2017, was a program breakthrough and overtake of sorts for Staley, who as a Virginia player went to the Final Four Women’s Final three years in a row but never won a championship. My gold medals as a baseball guard in NBA became a salve. But Staley’s unabashed rejoicing over the Gamecocks’ first National Championship—25 years after her college career ended—showed that she never drove that ghost until she had the NCAA Cup in her hands.
For Boston, it wasn’t so much painful as it was just a lingering needle. Although the native of the Virgin Islands has never needed to push for success. This impulse came naturally.
“She was always ready to get up and go,” said her father, Al Boston. “It didn’t matter where we trained; she was ready and willing.”
Her mother, Cleon Boston, added, “She was always very determined. She always had it. Whatever it took, she was willing to do it.”
Knowing how close they are to playing for the 2021 NCAA title — after being denied a chance like everyone else when the 2020 tournament was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic — stayed on Boston’s mind.
Aliyah Boston of South Carolina jumps high for a block that leads to Destiny Henderson sinking into the transition throw throw.
Boston has won the National Women’s Player of the Year so far this season based on her consistent performance as the Gamecocks announcer in defense and offense. She could get into the WNBA now and be a strength, but at 20, she wasn’t old enough to be eligible to enlist as a freshman.
Reaching that level in her third college season was boosted by a better diet and fitness routine, more strength training, workouts with NBA legend Tim Duncan – and a memory of the past year. Although the bounce she missed required some luck as much as skill.
It also continued with her parents, who spoke to the media at the Target Center on Thursday after Boston named their newest player of the year. Due to ongoing COVID-19 regulations during the tournament in San Antonio last year, they weren’t on hand to embrace it right after South Carolina’s loss.
Al said, “I wanted to cry. As much as I wanted to hug her…”. “But I think it was good to let it go through, feel it, and understand it.”
Cleon said, “It broke my heart. But there was nothing else we could do but pray and move on with her and know it would work out in the end, but that doesn’t ease the pain now.”
Cleon also did what she had always done: Send a bible to her daughter, to remind her of the greater purpose, and to despair of something not working as well as you hoped.
“When she missed that shot and her team lost, I honestly think it worked out for her,” Cleoni said. “She would have liked to win anyway, but this kept her pushing, to set new goals for herself and her team, and to work hard to achieve that goal. And this year speaks for itself.”
Alia Boston of South Carolina is in the right place after a missed shot and is able to hit the target.
Boston set a SEC record with 27 consecutive doubles, and along with the Player of the Year honors, was also named Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. Staley campaigned vigorously for Boston to earn her individual honor, while also acknowledging that she knew these weren’t very important to Boston.
Boston’s mind was very interested in the championship, and other things did not become a distraction. This does not mean that she only thought of basketball. Like her superstar predecessor in South Carolina, 2020 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson, Boston is also committed to social justice and equality, and to exploring its place in the world outside of sports.
“I told her to continue to be herself,” Wilson said when asked if she had given any advice to Boston. “Sometimes in the media they try to turn you against other players or they think you are like this or that or something else. Don’t mind that. You can’t really control that. Control what you can be and be you.”
Boston has a growing awareness of its importance in the sport, along with what it means especially to children who watch it in Columbia, South Carolina, and back home in the Virgin Islands.
Her parents smiled as they told them they had heard a fourth-grader giving a presentation about someone from the Virgin Islands who had inspired them. The girl chose Boston, and she even dyed the ends of her hair blue in honor of Boston, known for its colorful braids.
The National Championship is indelible in 2021, but for Boston it shows the purpose of that hill she had to climb after losing. And there’s more to Boston than the track and titles you’ll have — and you could add to next season.
“I know I have a platform, and if I think something is wrong or something is not happening, then I will be able to talk about it,” Boston said. “That’s crazy, because I got into college, I always thought that if you had a big platform, you probably wouldn’t be the one talking. Because people would have their opinions.
“But not everything always goes your way. Not even sports, just everything in life. Being able to speak and use your voice, especially being a person of color… It’s like you need to have a proper ground.”
And now with the Championship trophy within reach, Boston stands stronger than ever.