SAN ANTONIO – Aliyah Boston went from hope to heartbreak in one fluid and devastating move. His last-second spike shot went up. And when it rang, the final bell rang, she went downstairs. A cardinal celebration erupted around him as Boston, racked with sobs, sank to his knees.
After a feverish back and forth of a fourth quarter, South Carolina had lost to Stanford, 66-65.
The Final Four showdown was intense and frantic throughout. But it was never more so than in his last minute. South Carolina took its first lead of the second half with just 41 seconds left, leading by one on a Destanni Henderson 3-pointer. Stanford responded with a missed layup, but Haley Jones took the offensive rebound and hit a jump shot, regaining the lead. South Carolina then failed to capitalize on a possession roller coaster: Boston missed a layup, took the rebound and kicked it to Henderson, who delivered it with 16 seconds remaining. But the Gamecocks had one more chance. As the seconds ticked by …10, 9, 8“Boston stole the ball.”
She shot Brea Beal. With two seconds to go, the guard stared openly at a tray and missed. But Boston was in time to rebound and try, unsuccessfully, to aim for victory.
When Boston shed its last hope, Dawn Staley recalled a February game, the team’s overtime loss to Connecticut. The last seconds of the last quarter in that one had passed almost exactly the same way; there, too, Boston had grabbed an offensive rebound for a chance to win it with a spike shot. But this time, Staley hoped, the ending might be different.
“I thought it was going to be a redemption for Aliyah,” said the head coach. “Just to have that ball fall for her. But it wasn’t in our cards. “
Stanford is now heading to the national championship after a victory that showed his balance and defensive strength. He couldn’t beat South Carolina, no one has done it all year. But the Cardinal came relatively close (36 rebounds to 40 for the Gamecocks) and blocked 12 shots, more than any other team has managed against South Carolina.
It was a showcase for Haley Jones, who led the team in scoring with 24. But she was so highlighted by Lexie Hull’s rebounding ability; for the tough physical defense of freshman Cameron Brink; and for the critical contributions of Ashten Prechtel. This has been one of Stanford’s strengths throughout the year, never having to rely too heavily on any one player, and it helped push it to the limit here.
Tara VanDerveer’s path to a championship has always been through Staley. Her two titles with Stanford, 1990 and 1992, came after defeating Staley in the Final Four as a player with Virginia. The second of those victories was, like this one, a one-point game with a spectacular finish. So the missed opportunity for the last shot went to Staley. Now, 29 years later, he was asked how Boston, a perfectionist, still a sophomore, prone to repeating bad times over and over again, could get through this. Staley recalled his own loss in the Stanford Final Four.
“That stays with me. That’s 29 years later, ”he said. “But from 29 years ago until now, I mean, there are so many good memories to replace that… Aliyah will get over it. Aliyah is a great player. Aliyah will come back stronger, better. If he ever gets back in this position, he’ll knock her down. “
Staley took revenge on VanDerveer as a coach by defeating Stanford in the Final Four in 2017. But now the cards have turned, putting VanDerveer, the winningest coach in women’s college basketball history, in a final for the first time since 2010. And with the chance to win it all for the first time in nearly three decades, an opportunity that has repeatedly eluded her despite all her success.
This time, she says, it’s different.
“I don’t have any kind of skeletons in the closet or ghosts or whatever,” VanDerveer said. “This is a team in which I have confidence, confidence in themselves, they really play hard for each other.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.