To claim a second national championship in program history, Dawn Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks had to do something that had never been done before: defeat a Geno Auriemma-coached UConn team in the title game.
Stifling defense, a career night from guard Destanni Henderson and another double-double from star Aliyah Boston proved to be enough for a 64-49 victory Sunday night in Minneapolis.
Henderson finished with 26 points, four assists and three steals while Boston contributed 11 points, 16 rebounds, three assists and two blocks.
Talking to ESPN’s Holly Rowe on the dais with the celebration underway, Staley was asked how her team was able to persevere and stay patient.
“I have to give glory to God, glory to God,” Staley replied. “I think people don’t really understand that our path was divinely ordered. And the order was for us to be national champions on this day.”
The second national title adds more accolades to a playing/coaching career that has already earned Staley a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame. But since winning the program’s first national championship in 2017, Staley’s path to a second was blocked by a variety of obstacles.
South Carolina failed to make the Final Four in 2018 and ’19. The Gamecocks went 32-1 in 2019-20 — only for the NCAA Tournament to get canceled due to the pandemic. Then in last season’s Final Four, a putback attempt by Boston bounced off the back of the rim as time expired in a loss to eventual national champion Stanford.
The arduous journey back to the top of women’s college basketball served as a
reminder that even a coach as great as Staley can only control so much. She made sure that message got delivered loud and clear Sunday night.
Earlier in the day, Staley shared on social media her “Gameday Devotional,” a pregame ritual she’s been doing for years. The key Bible verse on Sunday was 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (KJB).
One player who has kept her faith — in the Lord and in Staley — has been Boston. After her heartbreaking missed shot last year, she was determined to replace those tears of pain with ones of joy. She did just that, but it might not have happened if not for some tough love from Staley after Boston’s 23-point, seven-rebound outing against Buffalo early in the season. Coach told her star she was not being the dominant presence South Carolina needed her to be.
“It kind of just flipped a switch and I’m glad she was able to say something because it really got me upset … I was very upset, and she knows that,” Boston said when telling the story before the UConn game. “It definitely worked out and I’m so glad she said something, because if she didn’t, who knows what I would’ve been thinking.”
Boston responded by posting a double-double in 30 of the Gamecocks’ final 33 games, and leading the team in scoring (16.8), rebounding (12.5) and blocks (2.4). Only Henderson averaged more assists and steals.
On Wednesday, the native of the U.S. Virgin Islands was named both the Naismith Player of the Year and the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. Sunday night, she was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four after producing 34 points, 34 rebounds and seven assists over the two games.
Boston also brought her faith front and center in her media session before the championship game, discussing the important role prayer plays in her life.
“Making sure that I pray that over myself that no weapon formed against me shall prosper (Isaiah 54:17), it just keeps me calm because I know that God is protecting me and He’s camping His angels around me every single day no matter what I’m doing,” she said.
Before even leaving the court Sunday night, she made sure to give God glory on Twitter.
Boston said she grew into a deeper faith and stronger relationship with God through the bizarre wrench the pandemic threw into her college career.
“I have definitely grown in my faith since last year,” Boston told FiveThirtyEight in March. “When COVID first started, I didn’t know what was happening in life and I was feeling overwhelmed a lot, but leaning on my faith has helped me.
“My family, we do a family Bible study almost every night, and I feel like I have been able to grow and get closer to God in that way as well. My faith helps me on the court because I am more patient.”
Her patience and perseverance were tested, along with the rest of her teammates and coaches, en route to the 2022 national championship. And according to their head coach, it was all part of their divine path.