Women's NCAA tournament 2022: A second shot for Aliyah Boston and South Carolina

THE BALL CLANGS off the back of the rim as the buzzer sounds, and Aliyah Boston's hands fly to her head in disbelief. She's hit this shot 1,000 times -- a little putback just over the front of the rim. But when she wanted to hit it most, in the last moments of the 2021 Final Four to send South Carolina to the national championship game, the ball bounces off metal instead of dropping through the net.

Boston turns her back to the basket, and squats low. She presses her palms flat against the hardwood; she bows her head into her jersey as her teammates collapse all around her. Boston feels like she's let them down, like she didn't show up when her team needed her. And there are no more games, no redos. It's just over.

After pushing herself back into a standing position, Boston takes a couple steps before doubling over with emotion. South Carolina assistant coach Fred Chmiel wraps Boston into a hug as the tears pour down her cheeks.

Stanford players Fran Belibi and Haley Jones, two of Boston's best friends, stop their celebration and run over to embrace her. Jones and Belibi may be going on to the national championship game after Stanford's 66-65 win, but they're also heartbroken for Boston.

After the confetti clears from Stanford's eventual championship two days later, and the River Walk in San Antonio empties, and long after Boston's tears have dried, she embraces the fire burning within her. What happened against Stanford won't happen again. As she sits with her mother, Cleone, Aliyah shares what's next.

"Mom," Aliyah says to Cleone. "The narrative is going to change."

SAN ANTONIO IS not just the home of Aliyah Boston's biggest heartbreak. It is also the home of Spurs legend Tim Duncan, who is the biggest basketball star to hail from the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Duncan, a five-time NBA champion who retired in 2016 and was known for his superb fundamentals in the post, is from St. Croix; Boston is from St. Thomas. A friend of a family friend made an introduction, and Boston enlisted his help to help her turn the page. To help her learn. To help her achieve her goal of winning the 2021-22 national championship with South Carolina.

During the offseason, Boston traveled to Duncan's adopted hometown and the two worked out for five days. He helped her expand the areas of the floor where she could be a threat. He preached patience, and they even put on some gloves and boxed.

Boston put in the work off the court as well. She changed some of her nutrition habits, losing 20-plus pounds on her 6-foot-5 frame and increasing her vertical jump by four inches.

When she returned to Columbia, South Carolina, Boston was in the best shape she's ever been. A finalist for the Wooden Award, the Naismith player of the year and national defensive player of the year awards, the junior has been dominant. She leads the country in win shares according to Herhoopstats.com, and has an SEC record 26 consecutive double-doubles (and counting). Other than the ever-changing colors of her long braids, Boston is not flashy. She doesn't dunk, and she doesn't launch from the logo, either. But she is a force. When Boston gets the ball on the block, and steps through a double team for a lay-in, look out. It's easy money. She's averaging 16.4 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. She's shooting 53.4% from the field.

Boston has put South Carolina four wins away from the program's second national championship.

"I would've loved to play with Aliyah," South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley says. "She makes your job easy. She makes playing easier because she's telling you what you need to do."

"She's national player of the year," said Las Vegas Aces star A'ja Wilson, who led South Carolina to its lone national title in 2017. "She's proven herself. I remember Coach Staley would always say, 'Greatness is just about consistency.' When you're consistently putting up the same amount of numbers and doing your job, that's greatness. And that's what you're seeing in Aliyah."

South Carolina has been dominant for much of the season, dropping only two games, and running through nearly the entire list of top-10 teams in the country to be the wire-to-wire No. 1. The Gamecocks have wins over six of the other 15 teams remaining in the national title hunt, including reigning national champion Stanford, fellow top seed NC State and perennial powerhouses UConn, Tennessee and Maryland. Next up is North Carolina, a team the Gamecocks haven't played since 2015.

But just two games into the tournament, the Gamecocks have looked vulnerable. The road to the program's second national title, which appeared relatively smooth a few weeks ago, has become a bit bumpier. It's easy to dismiss the Dec. 30 loss to Missouri and the loss to Kentucky in the SEC tournament championship game as flukes, but in the first two rounds of the tournament, offense has been an issue. Even as top-seeded South Carolina ground out a 16-point win against Miami in the second round, the Gamecocks only put up 49 points of their own. And Boston, normally steady and efficient, shot just 4-for-15 from the field.

The second round, though, was tough for many top seeds. No. 3 Indiana squeaked out a one-point win against Princeton; No. 2 UConn just squeezed by UCF. No. 2 Iowa and No. 2 Baylor didn't survive, both losing at home to 10 seeds. And No. 4 Oklahoma got run out of its own gym by Notre Dame. March is meant to be Madness.

Boston has seen -- lived -- the cruel twists the journey through the NCAA tournament can take. But she believes the Gamecocks can be the team hoisting the trophy this year. She didn't leave her family, her island, behind all those years ago for anything less.

ALIYAH LOVES BEING in the water. She has since she was young and her mom enrolled her (along with big sister Alexis) in Tiny Bubbles, a Saturday swim club on the beaches of the island. Of course there might have been a little extra treat in the form of a pancake handed out by the teacher, a man who still sends the Boston family birthday cards on Aliyah's and Alexis' birthdays. "As much as Aliyah loved the water, I thought she was more excited to get a pancake," Cleone says.

Whenever Boston makes it back home, she hugs her family and then heads to the beach. In St. Thomas, the water is crystal clear. Boston loves being in that water, twirling in the salty waves. "I have to see the fishes swim with me," she says. "If I can't see it, I don't go in."

St. Thomas is a big small town -- a little more than 40,000 people. As a kid, Aliyah attended Calvary Christian Academy. "It's really so small," Cleone says. Both Aliyah and Alexis found basketball through that small school. As kids, though, they practiced on outdoor courts just up the hill from the church and school. It wasn't anything fancy, just the ball, a rim and the island sun.

When Boston was 10 years old, she attended her first basketball camp in the continental United States. Her parents sent her to a Nike camp with Alexis in Milton, Massachusetts. Massachusetts wasn't exactly a hotbed of basketball development, but Cleone's sister lived there. "It cost us a lot," Cleone says. "But we thought, 'You know what? They might be tall and if they learn the sport, that might be a way to pay for college.'"

The next summer, it was a camp at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. Then, when Cleone was looking for another camp, she found an AAU program in Worcester, near her sister's home. They played the entire summer in Massachusetts, but there were also schools that Cleone liked nearby. And a plan hatched for Aliyah and Alexis to stay with their aunt in Worcester while continuing to play year round. "It was kind of a late-notice decision," Aliyah says. "But it worked out."

It may have been a quick decision, but it wasn't an easy one. Alexis was just 14, and Aliyah was 12. Their father, Al, wasn't over the moon about sending his daughters away for school. He loved coaching them, even if unofficially. Al was so present that he was in the team picture in the yearbook. "We were at odds on this, but we had to get on the same page," Cleone says. "Or I might have been divorced by now."

Cleone had her own reservations about sending her daughters nearly 2,000 miles away from their home. Her sister, Jenaire Hodge, didn't go to church as often as Cleone did, and faith was important to her family. Every Sunday at home Aliyah and Alexis went to church, and then stayed after service for Sunday school. After, they'd return to a home-cooked meal. Aliyah's favorite was baked macaroni and cheese, oxtail, red peas and rice.

When Aliyah celebrated her confirmation in the Episcopal church in St. Thomas, she had a game that same afternoon. After confirmation, she hurried up the hill to the court. One or the other was never an option; it was always both. She would leave for a basketball camp a couple days later.

In Worcester, that part of their life was bound to be different. Cleone wasn't sure her sister would prioritize that commitment to their faith. And there definitely wouldn't be baked mac and cheese and oxtail.

Cleone had to learn to let that go in favor of her daughters having different experiences. But she still prayed. And prayed. And prayed.

ONE OF THE FIRST things Sherry Levin did after being hired for her second stint as Worcester Academy's girls' basketball coach, was call Cleone Boston to assure her she knew how special her daughter was. Levin had watched tape of Aliyah's freshman season and didn't think she was being used properly. Levin wanted to do something a bit different; she wanted to run the offense through Aliyah, rather than have her rely on putbacks as she did her freshman season.

Boston was just a sophomore at Worcester Academy when Levin took over. It was her third year away from her parents, her third year in Massachusetts. Levin asked her what she wanted to achieve.

"I want to be a high-level basketball player in college," Boston said. "I want to go play for USA. And then WNBA."

Word started getting out about Aliyah Boston by the time she was a junior at Worcester Academy. Alexis had gone on to play at the junior-college level, and Aliyah was drawing the first team of college coaches. During fall open gym, the basketball team ran up and down in the school's old gym. The small court was made even smaller by the wooden track above it. The oval of open space makes the lane prime real estate, and renders a corner 3 -- or even a corner 15-footer -- impossible.

Coaches lined the sideline in their folding chairs, each of them making the trek to central Massachusetts for a chance to convince Boston to pick them for college. It was a who's who of schools: Louisville, Connecticut, Notre Dame, Maryland, Florida State and, of course, South Carolina. Levin walked up and down the line handing out water bottles. She couldn't coach during fall ball. State rules.

"It's not like there's any defense being played," Levin said. "It's literally fast breaks. Layups."

One by one, Boston narrowed down her choices. And when she was ready to make her announcement, she did it at home. The place where she could see the bottom of the ocean.

"Coach Staley's honesty was the most important thing," Boston said about why she chose South Carolina. "She was like, 'You come in, you're going to work, but I promise to get you where you want to be.' And I think that's good because some coaches will tell you everything you want to hear because they want you to come to the school. But I mean, some things are hard to hear and I think Coach Staley just being the person that she is, she was just realistic. And I like that about her."

South Carolina would be another new place for Boston, but it's the spot where she has been able to grow into those dreams she first had in Worcester.

UNDAUNTED, BOSTON HITS the practice court in early January, days after South Carolina's first loss of the season, to Missouri. She runs hard, she sets screens for her teammates, she sinks her open shots.

When Staley puts in a new play, Boston picks it up right away.

"Not everybody's born with this," Staley says. "Some people are just born with the ability to raise the level of a team. They understand the balance of when they got to do it and when you got to allow some other people to do it."

"On the court, she has this switch where she turns it on," South Carolina junior Brea Beal says. "She knows she has a goal, and she knows she has to get to that goal no matter who's in her way, who's in our path."

In an era of positionless basketball, where highlights are full of dribble step-backs and long 3-point shots, Boston's drop-step and center dominance goes against the grain.

"When you're consistently putting up the same amount of numbers and doing your job, that's greatness. And that's what you're seeing in Aliyah." A'ja Wilson

"I think a lot of times she doesn't really get the credit or the respect she deserves because she's a post player," Belibi says. "She's a great reminder that even as the game continues to change and expand and with how important the 3-point line continues to be, you still need a post player. And not necessarily change the games, but just kind of remind people of how the game used to be played and how it can still be played."

Take an early-season game against Kansas State and one of the other top centers in the game, Ayoka Lee. Boston scored 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting and grabbed 17 rebounds. And neither her points nor her field goal percentage nor her rebounds in that 65-44 win would wind up being her season highs.

Off the court, Boston is more lighthearted. She enjoys three-hour naps and has stuffed animals all over her bed: Giraffe, Strawberry Shortcake and a plush ball named Winston. "I think I'm getting rid of him," Boston says about Winston. "But he doesn't know that yet. So just let that one go."

Whether she's laughing about going to Staley's house for burgers, or making sure everyone knows to follow her on TikTok ("It's Aliyah.Boston, same as Instagram. And Twitter is @AA_Boston. Thank you!"), an abundance of joy follows Boston. "Aliyah is a much better dancer because of TikTok," Staley says. "She could not dance two and a half years ago. But she got rhythm now. So she's elevated her life."

"Now I can hit you with that body roll," Boston says.

BOSTON DOESN'T LIKE to talk about what happened in San Antonio, the missed shot and the Final Four. After last season, she didn't watch much basketball. She couldn't re-watch the game.

"I don't really think about it," Boston says. "I haven't really thought about it unless I'm asked the question. Because I can't sit on it because I mean, if you sit on the moment the entire time, that's not really helping you get any better because you're focusing on that exact thing."

She's not thrilled with the repeated questions about it, either. Sitting at a high-top table outside of the South Carolina practice gym, her eyes well with tears when the subject comes up. Boston's agonized, tear-stained face has been replayed in ads for March Madness, and promotional materials for women's college basketball. Staley has specifically requested those images not be used to represent Boston.

She's more than a missed shot on a big stage. She's an ocean enthusiast, a budding dancer, a driven athlete and a devoted Christian. One of her favorite Bible verses is Isaiah 54:17, "No weapon formed against you shall prosper..."

No missed opportunity, no missed shot shall prosper against Boston. If she has her way, it will get settled on the court in Minneapolis. And this time her smile, not her tears, will be the lasting image.

The narrative, she says, is going to change.