March Madness: Top-seeded SC moves on after topping USF
COLUMBIA — Aliyah Boston showed once more she’s far from a one-dimensional superstar.
While South Carolina All-American collected her 81st career double double with 11 points and 11 rebounds in a 76-45 victory over South Florida to advance to the Sweet 16 on Sunday, she also used her uncomparable defense to energize her team and lift them out of a slow start to keep their drive for back-to-back national titles going strong.
“She made a lot of plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet,” South Florida coach Jose Fernandez said.
Like when next month’s No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft twice dove on the floor to corral a loose basketball, then after blowing up Maria Alvarez’s drive to the basket ran out to the sideline to double team Emma Johansson and force a turnover.
“This is who she is,” said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who’s watched and admired the effort the past four seasons.
Zia Cooke scored 21 points for the Gamecocks, who improved to 34-0, won their 40th straight game and moved four victories away from repeating as national champs. They’ll head to Greenville, where they won the Southeastern Conference Tournament two weeks ago, to play for a spot in the Final Four.
“Just because I know my teammates are giving me their all, I want to do the same,” Boston said. “I’ve always had that energy on defense when I was younger and I’ve just kept it going now that I’m in college.”
South Florida (27-7) had hoped for a program-record 28th win this season and its first berth in the Sweet 16, but after a feisty start, couldn’t hang with the Gamecocks.
Elena Tsineke, just 5-of-16 shooting in Friday’s OT win over Marquette, scored seven of the Bulls’ first 10 points on the way to a 16-12, first quarter lead in front of an edgy crowd on South Carolina’s home court.
The Gamecocks, outrebounded 10-9 the first 10 minutes, took control of the glass after that, finishing with a comfortable edge of 52-28.
South Florida made just five of its 28 shots the final 20 minutes and was held to its lowest point-total this season, 25 below its season’s average.
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Tsinkeke led the Bulls with 20 points. Fankam Mendjiadeu was held to just four points on 2-of-9 shooting.
“Their physicality started to kick in, so I guess we just couldn’t really keep up with that,” Tsineke said.
South Florida: It should be a different Bulls lineup with fifth-year senior Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu and Tsineke likely gone. Sammie Puisis, the Florida State transfer listed as a junior, can return and if she does, could become an even more dynamic scorer than she was this season. Carla Brito was a freshman starter and should play a bigger role next season. “I told them, ‘Don’t let this define the year that we had,” said Fernandez, the USF coach.
South Carolina: Just another day at the NCAA Tournament office for the Gamecocks, who’ve been a near Sweet 16 lock under Dawn Staley the past decade of so. They’ve reached the round of 16 in 10 of past 11 tournaments, only missing in 2013. There was no tournament in 2020 due to COVID-19.
Dawn Staley wore a replica jersey for Cheyney State, the lone HBCU program to play in a Final Four. Staley wore the No. 44 of Yolanda Laney, who she said put together youth basketball summer leagues in the Philadelphia area that the Gamecocks coach took part in as a hoops hopeful.
South Carolina’s No. 1 ranked recruiting class from 2019 closed out their four years at home with a 60-1 record, the lone defeat coming to North Carolina State in Dec. 2020 during their sophomore seasons. That class featured Boston, Cooke, Brea Beal, Laeticia Amihere and Olivia Thompson. It was also a milestone victory for Staley, who won her 400th game with the program since taking over before the 2008-09 season.
South Carolina will face either fourth-seeded UCLA or fifth-seeded Oklahoma in the Sweet 16 next Saturday. The Bruins and Sooners play Monday.