MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Aliyah Boston had 23 points and 18 rebounds to back up her AP National Player of the Year award and carry South Carolina to the NCAA championship game with a 72-59 victory over Louisville in the semifinals on Friday night.
Brea Beal matched her season high with 12 points and helped hold Cardinals star Hailey Van Lith to nine points on 4-for-11 shooting as the Gamecocks (34-2) delivered another stifling defensive performance.
The Dawn Staley-led Gamecocks will face the Connecticut-Stanford winner on Sunday night at Target Center. Staley will try to win her second national championship, eight months after the Hall of Famer led the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in the Tokyo Games.
”You see happy tears, happy tears, right now,” Boston said in her postgame TV interview. ”I’m just thanking God we have one more game.”
Destanni Henderson scored 11 points with 3-for-6 shooting from 3-point range and had four assists for South Carolina, which improved to 13-0 this season against AP-ranked opponents.
”Just going to live in the moment for right now,” Henderson said.
Emily Engstler led Louisville with 18 points and nine rebounds as the Cardinals went 1 for 8 from 3-point range and were never able to find a rhythm in the half court against the No. 1 overall seed in this tournament.
Kianna Smith and Olivia Cochran each scored 14 points for the Cardinals (29-5), who were the only team in this Final Four without a title. This was their fourth trip to the national semifinals in coach Jeff Walz’s 15 seasons.
”I’ve never been prouder of a group,” Walz said. ”They’ve absolutely been a joy to coach.”
The Cardinals, one of the three No. 1 seeds in this Final Four, made it out of the Wichita Region without any trouble. Van Lith, the relentless sophomore guard with the perpetually flopping blond pigtails, hit the 20-point mark in each of their first four tournament games.
Van Lith met her match with Beal, who had a four-inch height advantage and shadowed her all over the court as she often does to the opponent’s most dangerous player. Van Lith, whose first basket came on a knifing drive for a layup with 1:43 left in the second quarter, had two jumpers blocked by Beal and three turnovers in the first half.
The Gamecocks, who were the wire-to-wire No. 1 team in the AP poll this season, squeezed their first four tournament opponents in the Greensboro Region to a bleak average of 41.2 points on their way to a fourth Final Four in the last seven years.
Engstler, the tough-as-nails transfer from Syracuse, helped Louisville keep Boston from getting too comfortable in the paint while Olivia Cochran helped with the muscle. Physical play can come with a price, though, and with 4.2 seconds left in the third quarter Boston drew Engstler’s fourth foul on a putback layup and stretched the lead to 57-48 with the and-one free throw.
Engstler fouled out with 4:56 to go and had her head buried in her clenched hands on the bench as her teammates tried to console her.
- South Carolina is now 4-0 against teams ranked in the top five nationally and is 13-0 overall against ranked opponents this season.
- The Gamecocks’ 34 wins so far this season matches the program’s single-season record, first set in 2014-15.
- Fresh off a week spent collecting awards, Aliyah Boston more than backed it up Friday night. The junior had a double-double in the second half alone and finished with a game-high 23 points and 18 rebounds.
- Thanks to her 18 boards, Boston broke the program’s single-season rebound record. Her current total of 446 passes Katrina Anderson’s 434 during the 1977-78 season (34 games).
- Dating back to the Sweet 16 win over North Carolina, Boston is averaging 23.3 points and 15.7 rebounds per game in the three wins.
- Both teams leaned on their starters; of the 131 total points scored, only eight came from players coming off the bench. While she only scored three points, Saniya Rivers gave the team major energy in 20 minutes substituting in to play. The freshman had three assists, a steal and a block while playing all 10 minutes of the fourth quarter.
- All five South Carolina starters scored in double figures, with Brea Beal’s 12 points giving her back-to-back games with 10+ points for the first time this season and Victaria Saxton’s 10 points marking back-to-back games with 10+ points since Jan. 13.
- The Gamecock defense chased Louisville off the 3-point line all night, the Cardinals nine fewer 3s than their season average and didn’t make a shot from deep until 35 seconds were left in the game.
The Gamecocks await the winner of No. 1 Stanford and No. 2 UConn for the national championship on Sunday, April 3. The title matchup tips off at 8 p.m. ET and airs on ESPN.