Boston helps bounce UNC women in Sweet 16

South Carolina's National Player of the Year candidate Aliyah Boston had 28 points and 22 rebounds to beat the Tar Heels 69-61

South Carolina's Aliyah Boston scores two of her game-high 28 points against UNC defender Alexandra Zelaya during Friday's NCAA Tournament region semifinal at Greensboro Coliseum. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

GREENSBORO — Upsetting the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament is difficult enough without giving that team and its national Player of the Year candidate second chances to beat you.

But that’s what the North Carolina women’s basketball team did in the Sweet 16 of the Greensboro Regional on Friday.

It gave No. 1 South Carolina 24 second chances, 12 to star center Aliyah Boston alone, and the Gamecocks used them to hold on for a 69-61 victory that ended the Tar Heels’ surprising postseason run.

Boston converted her 12 offensive rebounds into 18 of her game-high 28 points while scoring all 13 of her team’s points in the fourth quarter to send South Carolina into Sunday’s region championship game against either Iowa State or Creighton.

“She was an absolute problem, let’s put it that way,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said of the Gamecocks’ 6-foot-5 junior center, who finished with 22 total rebounds for her 28th double-double of the season.

“We knew that we’d have to make 3s and have to take care of the basketball because we just don’t have the size and physicality yet. She’s so strong with her whole body.”

Banghart’s Tar Heels (25-7) didn’t accomplish either of those two goals, turning the ball over 13 times — leading to 17 South Carolina points — and going 3 of 11 from beyond the arc.

And they actually defended Boston well for a while.

After scoring her team’s first two baskets, she only added two more free throws during a first quarter in which UNC outscored the Gamecocks 23-22.

But in collapsing their defense on Boston in an attempt to neutralize her, the Tar Heels gave South Carolina’s perimeter shooters plenty of open looks at the basket. 

When Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson took advantage by making three 3-pointers each in the first half — on 11 attempts — UNC had to abandon its initial strategy and extend its defense. That allowed Boston to take over and dominate.

“Our game plan in the beginning was to crowd the paint and limit the bigs touches,” UNC guard Carlie Littlefield said. “When their guards kind of started on their little run, hitting outside shots, which was something we were going to make them do, we had to adjust on the ball screens. And the ball screens kept getting set lower and lower. But we couldn’t help too much because they had such a big post presence inside.”

In addition to Boston, 6-foot-2 forward Victaria Saxton also had 14 rebounds and two blocked shots for the Gamecocks (32-2) while guards Cooke and Henderson carried the rest of the scoring load with 15 and 13 points, respectively.

Despite having trouble stopping South Carolina both inside and outside and second- and third-leading scorers Alyssa Ustby and Kennedy Todd-Williams being held to just 11 points between them — with Ustby going 2 of 11 from the floor — the Tar Heels still found a way to stay within striking distance well into the fourth quarter.

Much of the credit for that goes to sophomore point guard Deja Kelly, who scored 23 points and fueled a fast break that led to 14 transition points — compared to only five for South Carolina.

As aggressive as the Tar Heels were, Kelly said she and her teammates could have been even more forceful at speeding up the pace and taking the ball at the Gamecocks’ bigs — even if they weren’t able to get the ball all the way to the rim.

“The thing we could have done a better job of is attacking the paint and throwbacks for 3s,” she said. “I don’t think we used the 3-point shot as much as we could have.”

UNC also didn’t take advantage of its opportunities on shots South Carolina couldn’t defend. It went just 10 of 16 from the free-throw line, including two critical misses by Littlefield with 1:22 remaining.

The Tar Heels trailed 65-61 at the time and could have gotten back to within a single possession with plenty of time remaining. But Boston converted at the other end and then made a pair of free throws following a Kelly turnover to finally put the game away.

“I thought she played like the National Player of the Year and that’s what you do,” Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said of Boston. “When the game is on the line, you give them the ball and they perform. She’s been that for us all season long, but she showed up on the biggest stage in the biggest game. This is the biggest game that we have in front of us and she delivered.”