COLUMBIA — Aliyah Boston didn’t just have to contend with the shadow of a great player. She had an 11-foot tall likeness in front of her home arena.
Boston first arrived on campus at the University of South Carolina in 2019, just one year after the greatest player in program history, A’ja Wilson, had finished an NCAA career that transformed the school into a women’s college basketball powerhouse. A three-time first-team All-American, Wilson was the hometown star who helped lead the Gamecocks to their first NCAA title in 2017. A bronze statue of Wilson atop a granite base was erected outside the main entrance to Colonial Life Arena in January 2021 during Boston’s sophomore year.
The lingering presence of a legend could have intimidated a lot of players, but not Boston.
“I don’t think everybody could be in Aliyah’s position and thrive like she’s been thriving,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said of her All-American senior.
Talk to Boston for a minute and it’s clear there are no shadows in her world. She’s a young woman of faith, joy and big dreams. She carved her own legacy with the Gamecocks, who are undefeated (36-0) and headed to the Final Four for the third consecutive year. South Carolina is going for its second consecutive NCAA title with one of the best defensive teams in women’s college basketball history. Boston is in the middle of it, literally, as a 6-foot-5 post player who is both a one-on-one wall inside and the ultimate safety net as a help defender.
What are the odds of having two generational players at the same position come along so quickly, one after the other? Even for as great a recruiter and developer of talent as Staley is, it’s a double jackpot.
The 6-foot-4 Wilson, 26, is a WNBA champion and two-time league MVP with the Las Vegas Aces, plus an Olympic gold medalist. She was the No. 1 pick and Rookie of the Year in 2018. The 6-5 Boston, 21, is expected to be the No. 1 pick for the Indiana Fever in April.
Wilson was the beloved hometown girl who grew up in Columbia and led the Gamecocks to their first national championship in 2017. Boston, a native of the Virgin Islands who played high school basketball in Worcester, Massachusetts, didn’t give much thought to following Wilson’s footsteps until reporters started asking about it.
“I just looked at coming here as like, ‘This is where I can get better. This is where I can get to the WNBA and this is the coach I want,'” Boston said. “I’ve made a name for myself on this campus as well. A’ja is such an amazing, talented player, but I wanted to come in and be Aliyah.”
And Boston has the chance to do something even Wilson didn’t: win two NCAA championships and run the table.
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BOSTON AND WILSON have been the tentpoles for the Gamecocks’ golden age: five Final Four appearances and two NCAA titles, with hopes for a third this year, in the last eight NCAA tournaments (South Carolina was ranked No. 1 when the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 NCAA tournament). It’s natural to compare them.
Wilson, a left-hander, faced the basket a little more than the righty Boston, who excels using her strength close to the basket. But Wilson could also bang inside — she still does in the WNBA — and Boston can hit jump shots and the occasional trail 3-pointer.
“She’s really physical,” said Maryland Terrapins coach Brenda Frese, whose team lost to Boston and the Gamecocks in Monday’s Elite Eight. “You can’t move her down the block when you’re trying to defend her. She’s got great hands. Really, really difficult matchup.”
Wilson was a three-time SEC player of the year; Boston has won the honor twice. They are both also uber-elite on defense; Boston was the SEC’s defensive player of the year all four seasons, while Wilson won it twice.
Wilson averaged 17.3 points on 55% shooting, 8.7 rebounds and 2.6 blocks at South Carolina. Boston currently is at 14.1 PPG, 10.8 PPG and 2.4 BPG, while shooting 54%. Wilson made six 3-pointers for the Gamecocks, Boston has hit 31.
They also have their individual signatures. At South Carolina, Wilson was known for wearing pearls as a tribute to her grandmother. Boston is known for her multi-color braids, though they are all currently the garnet of the Gamecocks. Both learned leadership and responsibility at a young age, accepting that so many eyes are always on them.
Boston is navigating Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) opportunities that Wilson would have been able to cash in on, too, had NCAA rules not prevented it then. With so many potential distractions, Boston has kept her focus on basketball and school work, and Wilson did the same.
“It’s about having strong roots,” said Staley, whose Gamecocks could become the 10th Division I women’s team to go unbeaten. “Aliyah is very rooted in who she is. She has an old-school perspective. Like her mom, she’s just really inquisitive. Her dad, he’s calm, he’s cool. She gets the best of both worlds from them.
“I don’t think she really worries about what people think of her. She always wants to make the best impression, but that’s about what she thinks of herself. And if she thinks she falls short of that, she is the person that hurts the most.”
“I’ve made a name for myself on this campus as well. A’ja [Wilson] is such an amazing, talented player, but I wanted to come in and be Aliyah.”
It’s a stretch to identify areas where Boston has fallen short. The Gamecocks lost 66-65 in the 2021 national semifinals, which Boston took to heart as she missed a potential putback at the buzzer. But she returned to lead South Carolina to the 2022 title. And even in games this season when her stats haven’t been big — her numbers are down slightly this season, with averages of 13.2 PPG and 9.8 RPG after 16.8 and 12.5 a year ago — it’s because her team is so deep and dominant she hasn’t needed to play more than 26 minutes per game.
Staley said Boston’s willingness to never grouse about her own stats or court time for the greater good of the team reflects who she is.
“You can say you want to win,” Staley said. “But to do it, sometimes it challenges you and your selfishness. But she’s been to the mountaintop of women’s basketball. She’s not being driven by, ‘I want to repeat as national player of the year.’ She just wants to win.
“She has learned it’s really not about the accolades. It’s more about her growth.”
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BOSTON REMEMBERS MEETING Wilson for the first time. Wilson stopped by a South Carolina practice, and Boston, then a freshman, and the other young Gamecocks were awestruck.
“She was killing it in the [WNBA], so to have her come back, it’s still kind of like celebrity shock,” Boston said. “That’s how it was the very first time, but she was like, ‘Guys, don’t do that. Everything’s cool.’ Now, she’s like a real sister. She can truly say, ‘I know what you’re going through,’ and she has.”
Boston said she can talk to Wilson about anything. For her part, Wilson said she generally waits for Boston to ask for advice, but she’s always happy to provide encouragement.
“I remember my parents and Coach Staley sort of let me figure a lot of things out,” Wilson said. “They said, ‘When the time is right, you are going to know your voice and who you are, and you’re going to stand by that.’ I think it’s the same with Aliyah.”
Sometimes, though, Wilson has had a sense that Boston needs to hear from her. Earlier this season, Boston was second-guessing herself. Everything was going well with the team, but Boston wasn’t sure she was playing up to her potential.
“I was just like, ‘I don’t think I’m really playing my kind of basketball, how do I figure it out?'” Boston said. “How do I navigate my way through? She reached out. She said, ‘Hey, what are you thinking, how are you feeling about this, this and this?’ After talking to her, I was like, ‘This is a great relief.'”
Part of it was technical tips: dealing with triple teams, understanding the value of patience. But there was also practical advice from one perfectionist to another.
“Being able to turn the page,” Boston said. “She emphasized that whatever happens in the game, just being able to say, ‘OK, let’s go to the next thing. Let’s move on.'”
It’s something Wilson has continued to learn in her pro career. She was devastated by a Game 5 loss at home in the 2021 WNBA semifinals, but came back in 2022 to win her second MVP award and lead the Aces to their first WNBA title.
Wilson was drafted by the Aces in their first season in Las Vegas in 2018 and became the face of the franchise. In the organization’s last three years in San Antonio, the team missed the playoffs three years in a row. By 2020, the Aces were in the WNBA Finals, and were champions two years later.
If the 2023 draft goes as expected, Boston will join a mostly young Fever team which hasn’t made the playoffs since franchise legend Tamika Catchings retired in 2016.
“She is exactly what the Fever needs,” Staley said. “Whatever challenges that the Fever have had in the past, there are things with Aliyah they will never have to worry about. Like coming in with an incredible example of what a professional should look like, even as a rookie. She will elevate even their most veteran player.”
There are things Boston wants to add to her game at the next level. She has noticed that most WNBA post players have a fadeaway shot off one leg that is very hard to block, and so Boston has been working on it. First, though, her goal is to lead the Gamecocks to a repeat as national champions. As great as Wilson was, she got one NCAA title at South Carolina. Boston could get two.
If that happens Sunday, will there soon be another statue outside South Carolina’s arena? A strong advocate for her players, Staley was instrumental in getting the Wilson statue, and donated some of the funding for it. It would be no surprise to see Boston immortalized in bronze at some point, too.
Boston laughs and looks embarrassed at the question, as if such a thing is inconceivable. But it could be one more way she and Wilson are alike, even though both have carved out their own legends.
“We don’t even compare the two because they both leave legacies,” Staley said. “They both stood on their own because of who they are as people.”