COLUMBIA — With all the hype and comparisons, it would have been understandable had Aliyah Boston been good but not great, even solid but not good. Ranked third in the country as a high school basketball phenom and compared to South Carolina greats A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates before she ever laced her sneakers, it would have been OK if her freshman season was just OK.
“I mean, the whole team’s and what my main goal was, was to continue to win,” Boston said, her easygoing off-the-court demeanor evident by phone, even from 1,000 miles away. “I really just tried to do everything I could.”
Maybe it hasn’t really sunk in, although from Boston’s comments through the season, it has and she doesn’t pay attention to it. That she had one of the most phenomenal freshman seasons in women’s basketball history is a footnote to her, much like her first game as a Gamecock.
Boston became the first woman in Division I history to record a triple-double in her college debut. She celebrated it and then quickly forgot it, as a contest at No. 4 Maryland the next Sunday loomed.
“The triple-double was great. I’m really glad we won that game,” she said, “but we had a huge game coming up.”
It was that kind of focus and intensity combined with tremendous talent that made her a unanimous choice for National Freshman of the Year. Boston was also named SEC Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year, won the Lisa Leslie Award as the nation’s best center and was a second-team All-American.
Sometimes freshmen need to adjust to the jump from high school to college, and it shows on the court. Sometimes they start as the next big thing only to screech into a bridge abutment when their legs give out around January.
It’s unfair to say people were waiting for Boston to have a bad game, but many wouldn’t have been shocked to see it. That never happened, Boston always finding rebounds and blocked shots to contribute during the rare times she didn’t score much.
The double-teams on her were expected and handled, with the Gamecocks’ other stars always there. Boston never got frustrated or tried to force offense, knowing right away that if two players were on her, somebody had to be open. And at 6-4, she usually could find them.
“Coach did emphasize going inside and going inside-out, and I think it worked so well throughout the entire year. If I was doubled, we had great shooters on the outside,” she said. “I knew who I had on the outside, so it was fun.”
USC coach Dawn Staley knew Boston was a star in the making, but was prepared to take it slow if she had to. Even Wilson and Coates only started one game each as freshmen, although each was still named SEC Freshman of the Year.
Boston was different.
“I knew she was highly intelligent, I knew she understood basketball. Our conversations were always a little more in-depth than your regular high school player,” Staley said. “I just didn’t know how much she talked. Now she’s talking on every single pass. Not play. Every pass, she’s saying something to somebody.
“She’s been pretty much the ringleader when it comes to communicating.”
Staley said the communication and the way the team instantly gelled was what carried the team to a 32-1 SEC championship season. Staley felt a Final Four appearance was a certainty and a national championship likely. No one will ever know because of the coronavirus, but what nobody can dispute is the Gamecocks were No. 1 in the polls from Jan. 13 on.
Boston’s 412 points, 310 rebounds and 86 blocks were instrumental. By comparison, Coates had 417 points, 285 rebounds and (a freshman record) 73 blocks as a freshman, while Wilson had 486 points, 243 rebounds and 65 blocks.
Those totals naturally didn’t do anything to stop the comparisons to the Gamecocks’ other greats in the paint. Boston welcomed them.
“When I started getting into the recruiting process, I watched A’ja,” she said. “Honestly, I would just listen to (the comparisons) and I was kind of flattered, because A’ja was so talented.
“But at the same time, I have to be the next best player.”
Some of Boston’s enablers have departed. Point guard Ty Harris, who could get her the ball, and forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who drew defenders away from Boston due to her deadly outside shooting, are off to the WNBA.
Even with rising sophomore starters Zia Cooke and Brea Beal returning alongside her, it will be a different look and different expectations next year. Boston was incredible as a freshman.
How does one make themselves more incredible as a sophomore?
“I think that I’m going to be looked at as one of the leaders, and I think I’m ready for that, but it’s all about just doing what the team needs,” Boston said. “Brea, Zia, (Olivia Thompson and Laeticia Amihere), we all did this freshman year together. All of them make it easier.”
Boston is back in Massachusetts, where she played high school ball, and hopes to travel to her native U.S. Virgin Islands when COVID-19 restrictions have eased. She said she's preparing for next season as much as she can. There are workouts with a cousin, a neighbor has a hoop in the driveway and there are always pathways to jog. Basketball shape won’t be a problem once she’s back on campus.
Handling a brighter, heavier spotlight than last year?
“To me, personally, I don’t really pay attention to media. Sorry,” she punctuated with a laugh. “I just focus on the team. We’re dealing with us, in the inner circle, where no one else knows anything.
“I know that there will be teams probably coming at me, but at the same time, I have the same mindset.”
Nobody gives awards for National Sophomore of the Year.
But other rewards, such as a national championship, are out there.