COLUMBIA — The smile stays off the court. The hardwood is Aliyah Boston’s office and she isn’t there to grin her way past the opponent.
Yet on Jan. 2 at Georgia, she had no choice. Such was the case as No. 1 South Carolina set up for an inbounds play, and four Georgia players surrounded Boston with arms up, hemming her into the lane. Boston couldn't help but smile at the cage they were trying to create.
“It’s kind of frustrating for me just because I’m trying to maneuver around, trying to figure it out,” she said later. “It’s going to get better.”
In a general sense, the Bulldogs weren’t doing anything Boston and the Gamecocks haven’t seen since the first game she played four years ago. Opponents play zone, crowding around Boston, daring her teammates to shoot over the defense and saying, “Anybody but her has to beat us.”
Georgia took it to ridiculous extremes, and because USC’s shots weren’t falling in the first half, it was working. Shots did fall in the second half, Zia Cooke riddling the Bulldogs for a career-high 31 points, and USC won 68-51.
But because it was effective, USC is wary of opponents making such defenses a habit. Auburn couldn’t do it very well because the Tigers are severely beaten up (USC won, 94-42), and Mississippi State’s defensive plan was to keep Boston out of the paint entirely (USC won, 58-51).
She finds ways to beat the house.
“It’s definitely a new type of junk defenses that we’ve been seeing. If we continue to see it, I think I’m just going to be more aware and able to maneuver a lot better,” she said. “Also at the same time, my teammates continue to knock down shots. If that continues to be the game plan, then they’re gonna be snipin.’”
As queen of the double-double, Boston’s performance as the SEC season began raised eyebrows. Because she could barely get the ball in her hands, she had a total of 10 points on 2 of 11 shooting against Texas A&M and Georgia.
She had 13 in the laugher over Auburn (5 of 7 from the field) and got her double-double against MSU with 12 points and 15 rebounds, shooting 5 of 13 from the field. The rest of the team has done what it’s had to do, be it volume shooting from Cooke, clutch 3-pointers from Brea Beal, Kierra Fletcher’s mid-range jumpers or the every-play fundamentals of Victaria Saxton.
Then Boston busted loose against Kentucky and Missouri, scoring 21 and 20 in back-to-back games while barely missing a shot. The defensive strategy others employed, like the others Boston has faced in her formidable career, seems to have fizzled.
Dawn Staley was never concerned about Boston. She stressed to her center and reigning national player of the year that it’s a form of flattery, with opponents game-planning only to stop her.
She also grumbled that this kind of trash defense isn’t something she would ever do, and that Boston having to deal with it should be considered a vote for a second player-of-the-year award, since nobody else has that kind of matchup night after night.
“It takes four to guard her. No one in the country has to guard against all of that,” Staley said. “She’s still the best player in the country, I don’t care what people post or say. No one’s seeing what she’s seeing.”
It isn’t a problem that will continue if Boston does as expected and heads to the WNBA after this season. The pro game has a rule governing defensive three seconds, so Georgia’s strategy would last only until the first whistle.
But there are a lot of games before that decision has to be made. Many of those will determine if the Gamecocks become the first repeat national champ since Connecticut finished a run of four straight titles in 2016.
“It’s definitely a work in progress, but I think my teammates and Coach Staley have continued to help me stay strong up here,” Boston said, pointing to her head that’s currently covered with green and red braids (new colors coming soon). “That’s where definitely the battle is.”
The smile may be present the next time Boston sees a specialized defense, but if so, it will quickly disappear into another list of tasks for the workday.
Starting with, “Win.”