Record-breaking night for Boston as South Carolina beats Louisville 72-59 to advance to the championship game
MINNEAPOLIS – The top overall seed in the NCAA tournament, the South Carolina Gamecocks (34-2), topped fellow No. 1 seed Louisville Cardinals 72-59 in the first semifinal of the Final Four Friday night at Target Center in Minneapolis in front of 18,268 raucous fans. Led by junior forward Aliyah Boston who had a monster double-double of 23 points plus 18 rebounds, the Gamecocks worked hard to keep Louisville (29-5) at bay and avoid the fate they endured last season in the semifinals when they fell to Stanford.
“I feel like last year we fell short when we lost in the Final Four,” senior guard Destanni Henderson said. “I feel like this year, it’s a relief right now, and it feels great. But we’re going to take in this moment, and we’re not done yet, so we still have unfinished business. Just going to live in the moment for right now.”
After a jittery minute from both teams after the tip, South Carolina raced out to an 11-2 lead with balanced scoring from four players: junior guard Zia Cooke, senior forward Victaria Saxton, junior guard Brea Beal and Boston. After a timeout where the Cardinals regrouped, senior forward Emily Engstler made a second-chance jumper to get her team going. Redshirt senior guard Kianna Smith and sophomore forward Olivia Cochran helped out but by the end of the quarter, the Gamecocks were still in control 17-10.
The teams battled evenly in the second quarter with Louisville outpacing South Carolina by a point, 18-17. The Cardinals went on a 6-0 run and a jumper from Smith at 6:14 gave her team a three-point lead, the biggest advantage Louisville would have all game. South Carolina responded immediately to finish out the quarter on a 15-6 lead.
At the half, the Gamecocks held a 34-28 lead. Boston had eight points and eight rebounds while Engstler lead all scorers with 10 points plus seven rebounds. Boston came into the contest needing only six rebounds to break the South Carolina record for most rebounds in a season, a mark set in 1977-78.
South Carolina set the tone for the rest of the game early in the third quarter with Cooke draining a trey followed by a jumper giving South Carolina its first double-digit lead of the game. While Louisville fought valiantly, they could not overcome the defense and offensive prowess of the Gamecocks who outscored the Cardinals 23-20 in the third quarter and 15-11 in the last period.
Louisville’s late-game woes continued when Engstler fouled out of the game with 4:56 to go in the contest when the Gamecocks led 63-54. Louisville would only score five more points.
Engstler, who had tears flowing on her way to the bench when she fouled out, led her team with an impressive 18 points plus five rebounds and four steals against the number one team in the nation. Smith scored 14 points and grabbed five rebounds while Cochran added 14 points and four rebounds.
For South Carolina, Boston’s efforts were proof that she deserved her sweep of National Player of the Year honors from multiple organizations. Her 18 rebounds gave her a season total of 446 with another game on the horizon for her to shatter the program record for caroms in a season. Her output was crucial in South Carolina earning a chance to fight for the championship.
“Last year we lost in the Final Four but this year we knew that we were going to be tested and this is the hump that we need to get over,” Boston said postgame. “And we got over that tonight and we’re on to the national championship game, so we’re really excited.”
Four other Gamecocks landed in double figures: Beal (12 points), Henderson (11 points plus four assists), Saxton (10 points), and Cooke (10 points).
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley opened her postgame presser complimenting Louisville and the lively atmosphere of the semifinal.
“First, I just want to say that Louisville did an extremely great job of just competing,” Staley said. “We could never put them away because of their fight and their competitiveness and their ability to hang in there and defend and score and turn us over. They created a great environment for all women’s basketball fans to be excited about.”
Sunday, South Carolina faces UConn as the Huskies downed the reigning national champion, Stanford, in the second semifinal of the night. Friday night’s game marked the fourth Final Four for South Carolina in the last seven NCAA tournaments