MINNEAPOLIS — 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.
After putting up 28 points and 22 rebounds in the Sweet 16 against North Carolina, Boston proved she had plenty left for the Final Four.
South Carolina, which won the title in 2017, was painfully ousted in the semifinals last season by one point to eventual champion Stanford when Boston’s putback attempt bounced off the rim at the buzzer. The 6-foot-5 junior from the U.S. Virgin Islands has bounced right back a year later.
“We just knew that we fell short, but it’s not something that we continued to think about,” Boston said. “This is a new team. We have a lot more depth.”
Said Staley: “You’re either going to pass the test or you’re going to have to retake it.”
Wearing her familiar vibrant braids in a bright-pink-and-purple combination, Boston helped the Gamecocks set a commanding tone early with an 11-2 lead. The Cardinals missed seven of their first eight shots from the floor.
Louisville enjoyed a 12-0 run early in the second quarter to take a short-lived three-point edge, but South Carolina simply had so much more to offer after that. Henderson’s 3-pointer gave the Gamecocks their largest lead at 51-36 midway through the third quarter, and the Cardinals were only within less than eight points for 42 seconds after that.
The entire South Carolina team stayed off the court during the national anthem, keeping with the Gamecocks’ practice all season. Last season, several players took a knee during the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”