Dawn Staley saw the raw skill and youthful energy when scouting Aliyah Boston in high school. Now, South Carolina‘s coach is watching a player who’s transformed herself into one of the best in the game.
Boston, the 6-foot-5 All-America, had 19 points and 15 rebounds for her 10th consecutive double-double to lead the top-ranked Gamecocks to a 65-45 victory over Texas A&M on Thursday night.
Staley said Boston has steadily pursued greatness with the Gamecocks, improving her fitness, her technique and her knowledge.
“It happens over time, but she’s forced it to happen,” Staley said. “It’s beautiful to see it happening in such a short period of time.”
It was the latest stellar showing for Boston, who sees her role to do whatever is required. “Trying to do what the team needs is always what I’m trying to do,” she said.
Against Texas A&M (10-6, 0-4 Southeastern Conference), it was keeping South Carolina out front when her teammates shots weren’t falling.
Boston had already tied the program best with nine consecutive double-doubles last time out and moved on top when she grabbed her 10th rebound 17 minutes into the game. She already had 15 points while the rest of the Gamecocks (16-1, 4-1) had just 11 in the first two periods.
The Aggies tied it at 26-all on Kayla Wells’ opening basket of the period. That’s when South Carolina turned things up. Destanni Henderson had a pair of 3-pointers while Boston added another inside bucket.
When Zia Cooke hit a 3-pointer, South Carolina led 41-28 and would not be caught as the Aggies opened conference play with four straight defeats — something it had never done since joining the league before the 2012-13 season.
Boston went for eight points the first eight minutes as the Gamecocks moved out to a 16-4 lead. But Texas A&M cranked up the defense and connected on shots, outscoring South Carolina 20-10 to the half and pulled within 26-24.
Like most other opponents this season, the Aggies couldn’t slow down Boston, who notched her 10th straight game with double figure points and rebounds with more than three minutes left in the second quarter.
While Boston was on fire, Cooke was ice cold. The South Carolina junior, averaging 12.6 points a game, missed all nine shots she took in the opening half, five of those from beyond the arc.
Cooke finished 3 of 16 overall — all her baskets on threes — for 10 points. Henderson had 15 points and Victaria Saxton 10.
Qudashiah Hoppie led the Aggies with 15 points on 5-of-19 shooting.
It was Blair’s final time at the Colonial Life Arena, a building he’s praised for its its huge crowds and atmosphere. He walked the concourse an hour before tipoff, hugging supporters and interacting with fans.
Blair’s national championship compatriot, Dawn Staley, presented him with a gift box right before the start as several fans stood and cheered for the Aggies’ coach, retiring after this season. Blair mimicked a golf swing so golf balls were probably involved.
Blair said he brought a school administrator on the trip to experience the big crowd of 12,169.
“We’re trying to learn from everybody we can,” he said.
Texas A&M: The Aggies beat South Carolina last February to win the SEC regular-season title. But Texas A&M is not the same team in Blair’s final season with Aaliyah Wilson and N’dea Jones off to the WNBA. The Aggies shot just 29 percent and matched a season-low for points.
South Carolina: Different night, same performance from the 6-foot-5 All-American in Boston, who’s putting together a national player of the year season. Even when her teammates to struggle to score, Boston’s dominance down low keeps South Carolina going until the offense kicks in.
Blair was the fifth coach with a national title that Staley’s Gamecocks have defeated this season, following Geno Auriemma of UConn, Brenda Frese of Maryland, Tara Vanderveer of Stanford and Kim Mulkey of LSU. “Those are the kind of stats we’re trying to dig up,” Staley said with a chuckle.
Texas A&M’s Blair referenced how his 2007-08 team opened 1-4 in the Big 12, then advanced to the NCAA’s Elite Eight. He vowed this team would not give up despite the early SEC hole. “If you get knocked down nine times, you’ve got to get up,” he said.
Texas A&M returns home to face Auburn on Sunday.
South Carolina plays at Arkansas on Sunday.