No more sad photos of Aliya Boston will be used for March Madness. The South Carolina Gamecocks lifted the 2022 NCAA Women's Tournament trophy with a 64-49 victory over UConn on Sunday. They started the season on top and that's exactly how they finished.
This was South Carolina's second appearance in the championship game, which makes the Gamecocks 2-0 in title games. They needed to redeem themselves after falling to Stanford in last year's Final Four, and they certainly did it in a dominating fashion.
"I don't want to get too personal, but they used a sad photo to describe March Madness when I don't think that should be the case," Boston told ESPN after the win. "Yes, there are emotions, but when you use a video of me crying for a long time period of time, that is going to fuel my fire ... I don't want anyone to use a video of me crying ever again as a weak point. Now you have a smile."
The Huskies have a long history of NCAA Tournament success, but South Carolina ruined Geno Auriemma's perfect 11-0 record in championship appearances. Even though UConn came in with an impressive resume, South Carolina was not the underdog. The Gamecocks entered Sunday's game as the favorite and proved to be successful. They dominated the Huskies with the same strengths they've demonstrated all season: defense and rebounding.
South Carolina finished the season with a 35-2 overall record and going wire-to-wire ranking No. 1 in the country. Only 12 other teams have accomplished that before. A major part of that success was a relentless defense that held opponents to 50.7 points per game, good for third best in the nation. They also finished as the third best rebounding team with 47.9 rebounds per game.
Boston – who won the Naismith Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards – led those efforts. The junior forward led her team with 16.8 points and 12.5 rebounds per game, and showed her strength by registering 27 straight double-doubles this season, and a total of 30. Boston also led her team in steals and blocks. Head coach Dawn Staley said postgame that even Boston sometimes doesn't realize her own power.
Defense and rebounds were things that disrupted UConn when the teams met back in November and South Carolina walked away with a 73-57 win. The Huskies averaged just under 75 points per game this season – putting them in the top 25 nationally – so holding them to only 57 points was not an easy task. South Carolina had a 42-25 rebound advantage in that game.
In Sunday's game, the Gamecocks played confidently with their strengths once again. South Carolina entered halftime with a 35-27 lead, not by outshooting UConn, but by taking more shots. The Huskies were shooting at 54.2% from the field while the Gamecocks were 36.6% in the first two quarters. However, South Carolina attempted 41 shots while only allowing 24 for UConn. The Gamecocks had a 20-2 advantage in second chance points after the first two quarters by registering with 16 offensive rebounds vs UConn's three.
South Carolina was up by as many as 18 points in the second quarter, but UConn is not a team to give up easily so the Huskies climbed back to make it a single-digit deficit.
The Gamecocks avoided a UConn comeback by holding their opponent to 30% shooting in the last two quarters. Chirstyn Williams and Azzi Fudd are two of the most consistent scorers for UConn, but South Carolina held them both scoreless for the first three quarters. UConn star Paige Bueckers was scoring, but her 14 points on 6-of-13 shooting from the field were not enough.
Senior guard Destanni Henderson was a big reason Bueckers wasn't able to save her team. She did a solid defensive job all night while also registering her career-high 26 point on the most important game of her college career. Henderson did not play very much in her first two seasons, and on Sunday Staley said this championship win would've never happened if Henderson had walked away after her first year.
"It was a journey that led me to this moment. It was easy to trust her it was easy to trust the process," Henderson said during the postgame press conference. "I had to believe and buy into my role ... you just have to believe and trust the process and great things will happen to you."
Boston finished the game with 11 points and 16 rebounds. While she wasn't her team's leading scorer on Sunday, she helped her team finish the night with a 49-24 rebounding advantage.
Part of what made the Gamecocks so successful was their ability to adjust when things weren't going their way. Their offense early in the tournament looked less than ideal, particularly in the second round game against Miami when the Gamecocks advanced after a low scoring game with a 49-33 result. But as the saying goes, defense wins championships -- at least in the case of South Carolina. The Gamecocks were actually outshot by UConn 40.7% - 36.7% on Sunday. However, a strong start and doing the right things in other areas lifted the Gamecocks to victory.
"We didn't have dominating performances all of our games," Staley said. "But part of being dominant is being able to win when you are not playing to the best of your abilities. You find a way to win."
Before Sunday, only seven programs had won multiple titles in NCAA women's basketball history. Staley -- the Naismith Women's Coach of the Year -- just helped South Carolina become the eighth program on that list with their second trophy. She carried a piece of the 2017 net with her during this year's tournament as motivation. She kept it in a bag for the first few rounds, but she pulled it out on Sunday. From the beginning, Staley and her players believed they could do it, the trophy was just the cherry on top.
During the postgame press conference, Boston -- a junior who'll be back next season -- was asked what her goal was for next year. Her response was short and simple.
"Same as this year," Boston replied.