SAN ANTONIO — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley can still remember every detail from a one-point loss to Stanford in the national semifinals 29 years ago when she was a senior guard at Virginia.
So she knows exactly how Aliyah Boston and the rest of her Gamecocks players felt as they left the Alamodome court in tears after a 66-65 loss to Stanford on Friday at the women’s Final Four.
Brea Beal missed a layup and then Boston a putback attempt as time expired, and the Cardinal escaped in a battle of No. 1 seeds. Stanford advances to Sunday’s championship game to try to win the program’s third NCAA title, which would be the Cardinal’s first since 1992.
“One or two moments like that don’t define who she is as a player,” Staley said of the sophomore forward Boston. “So I hope that she’ll get over it. She won’t for a long time.”
Indeed, Boston put her hands on her head and then began sobbing after her shot hit the back of the rim and bounced out.
“She’s a perfectionist. So that’s why it hurt so much, because it’s something that she practices all the time,” Staley said. “She’s not that type of player that’s going to allow that shot to impact her next shot, her next move in the journey that she has in basketball. But when she’s back in her room, she’s going to cry. I know it. She’s going to cry a whole lot. But when it’s time for us to pick back up and get back on the court in a couple of weeks, she’ll move on.”
But the Gamecocks won’t be moving on to the title game. That will be Stanford, which got outrebounded 40-36 and was outdone 9-5 in one of the Cardinal’s specialties, 3-point shooting. The Cardinal’s eight attempts from long range were their fewest in a game since February 2017.
But the Cardinal still triumphed after a frenzied finish.
Haley Jones, who led Stanford with 24 points and was 11-of-14 from the field, got what proved to be the winning basket with 32 seconds left when she picked up a loose ball after a Stanford miss and hit a jump shot.
“Haley Jones was a problem for us,” Staley said. “She is a guard. We had our post players match up with her most of the night. She took advantage of that.”
After a timeout, South Carolina inbounded the ball and Boston had a shot blocked by Cameron Brink, but got her own rebound before a steal by Ashten Prechtel gave the ball back to Stanford.
After two South Carolina fouls, the Cardinal inbounded the ball to Brink, who looked like she was expecting to be fouled. Instead, as she tried to dribble out of a double-team, the ball got away from her, Boston grabbed it and fed it to Beal, who went in for the layup.
Beal’s shot missed but bounced right into the hands of Boston, who missed the putback at the buzzer.
“It was in our hands,” said Zia Cooke, who led South Carolina with 25 points, “but we just came up short.”
This is Stanford’s 14th Final Four, and the Cardinal have one of their best defenses in coach Tara VanDerveer’s 35 seasons at Stanford. It caused problems for the Gamecocks all night, as they finished 11-of-37 in the paint. The last two misses were the most dramatic.
“I mean, you got to hold on to the ball at the end of the game. Cam was really upset with herself that it got away from her,” VanDerveer said. “But they did have two good looks. This is one of those survive and advance. It was not a pretty game for us, but that’s credit to South Carolina, how aggressive they are, how athletic they are. We’re going to have to learn from it and play better.”
Boston, Beal and Cooke are all sophomores playing in their first NCAA tournament, having missed last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Staley knows she has a lot of talent coming back, but also how much a tough ending can stick with players.
Asked about how she would help Boston get over the last miss, Staley reflected back on the last game of her college career, and the shot she heaved up just before the buzzer against VanDerveer and Stanford in the 1992 national semifinals. She still thinks about that miss, second-guessing herself for not taking advantage of her defender and trying to draw a foul.
The final score of that loss to Stanford was the same as Friday’s: 66-65
“So that stays with me. That’s 29 years later,” said Staley, who finally got her national championship with the Gamecocks in 2017. “But from 29 years ago to now, I mean, there are so many great memories that replace that. It only comes up when I’m asked.
“Aliyah will get over it. Aliyah is a great player. Aliyah will come back stronger, better. If she’s ever put in this position again, she’ll knock it down.”