Why South Carolina star Aliyah Boston should return to school for a fifth season

DALLAS – On a miserable night for Aliyah Boston, there’s good news: She can fix this disaster of an ending by rewriting it and coming back for another year. 

Because of COVID, Boston is one of a handful of top players in the country who have an extra year of eligibility. That’s a gift. This doesn’t have to be the end for Boston: eight points on a measly nine shots in just 25 minutes because she was besieged by foul trouble from the jump, an undefeated season up in smoke because of a 77-73 loss to Iowa in the national semifinals.

Before Friday night, Boston & Co. had won 42 straight games. Their streak might have been snapped in the 2023 tournament, but they can start another one and can win the 2024 tournament. Not everyone who has their heart broken in March Madness gets to say that.

To be clear, Boston is pro-ready right now. She’s the projected No. 1 pick in the upcoming WNBA Draft and would contribute immediately to the Indiana Fever. (And certainly the Fever hope she contributes – no one in that organization or fan base is hoping Boston gets the storybook ending at South Carolina. They want her now.) She’s the most complete player in America, a gifted athlete who will impact both ends of the floor.

“I’m going to tell her to go,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said afterward. “There are defenses that are played against her (in college) that won't allow her to play her game … so I would tell her to go. She's great. She's ready. She's ready to see single coverage. She's ready to make the next step to the league.”

Not to call Staley a liar, but I can’t imagine she’d actually turn down a chance to coach Boston again, given that she described her as someone who “elevated” South Carolina’s program.

“She's meant everything to our program,” Staley said. “She has been the cornerstone of our program for the past four years ... She raised the standard of how to approach basketball. She's never had a bad day. She's never come into practice sulking. She's so very, very consistent. I slept very well knowing she was with our program, and I'll sleep well knowing that she's OK and she will definitely make her mark at the next level.”

Iowa shocks South Carolina: Caitlin Clark steals the show in Hawkeyes' win over defending champs

Staley’s right — Boston deserves to play against just one defender. Right now the consensus 2022 national player of the year averages a double-double with the opposing team hanging all over her. The thought of going up against just one person is probably refreshing for Boston.

But why walk away from this stage? Why end your college career with a loss when you could go out on top, a feat that so few have the opportunity to do?

No matter what happens Sunday, even if Iowa wins, South Carolina would be the instant favorite next season if Boston returned. Iowa will still have Caitlin Clark, the 2023 consensus player of the year, but it will lose super-senior Monika Czinano, the X-factor in Friday’s game.

Meanwhile, South Carolina would return the player who many believed should have gone back-to-back with player of the year awards. That’s not a slight on Clark — it’s just that the Gamecocks were the best team all season, Boston is the best player on the best team and she is a considerably better defender.

The Gamecocks would be favored, and heavily — and now they, and Boston, might be able to better handle the pressure that comes with being the favorite.

Will Aliyah Boston return to South Carolina? She still has one season of eligibility remaining.
Will Aliyah Boston return to South Carolina? She still has one season of eligibility remaining.

It’s more than the opportunity to go out on top, though. Boston is royalty in women’s college basketball, treated like a queen in Columbia, South Carolina. She’s got NIL endorsement deals, a passionate fan base and a home at the new epicenter of women’s basketball.

The WNBA, meanwhile, doesn’t even charter flights. Does she really want to walk away from the college game?

In the postgame, Boston said she hadn’t made a decision yet (according to WNBA rules, she has 48 hours to declare her intentions for next season).

“This decision is a big decision,” said Boston, who showed incredible grace while discussing one of the biggest upsets in the history of the women’s NCAA tournament. She cracked jokes about how she didn't want to see any photos of her crying posted online, a nod to the heartbreak in 2021 when she missed a tip-in that would have won a national semifinal game against Stanford, and instantly burst into tears. That sequence played on a loop for months.

She was reflective, talking about the "special group" she came in with, acknowledging that winning 36 games is something few in the sport accomplish. She also said that even if South Carolina had completed the perfect season, leaving wasn't a no-brainer.

“I was going to have to really write down the pros and cons of everything," Boston said. "Whether we won or not, it would still have to be something that I would have to consider.”

At the beginning of the tournament, Boston teased a special announcement, saying that she’d reveal when she was done playing why she went with garnet braids for the postseason. There were whispers that she was going to announce her intention to come back for a fifth year.

Now, she has to. She is one of the best players in the history of the college game, a dominant presence in the paint who can impact every possession.

She can’t go out like that — and fortunately, she doesn’t have to.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Aliyah Boston should return to South Carolina after Final Four loss