GREENSBORO, N.C. — Midway through UNC’s postgame press conference following its season-ending loss to No. 1 South Carolina in the Sweet 16, a reporter in the crowd prefaced their question to head coach Courtney Banghart with an apology for bringing up a “bad subject."
“Aliyah Boston again?” Banghart replied, without missing a beat.
If you were North Carolina on Friday night, it was hard to escape the name — and relentless dominance — of South Carolina’s season-long X factor. Despite UNC’s best efforts, Boston recorded 28 points and 22 rebounds in her 27th straight double-double, carrying the Gamecocks to a 69-61 win.
“She was an absolute problem,” Banghart said. “Aliyah Boston going for 20-20 isn't surprising anybody in this room.”
Boston was virtually unstoppable in the late stretch of the game, with 19 of her points and 12 of her rebounds coming in the second half. She became the fourth player since 2000 to have a 20-20 performance in the Sweet 16 or later.
And it wasn’t for a lack of effort on North Carolina’s part, either.
UNC had given South Carolina multiple different defensive looks throughout the game. The Tar Heels tried denying the entry pass at first, but couldn’t quite get around Boston’s 6-foot-5 frame. By the second quarter, the team shifted to a pack line defense, which the Gamecocks’ formidable outside shooters, Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke, took full advantage of.
And by the third quarter? Boston had taken over.
“Our initial game plan in the beginning was really crowd the paint and really limit the bigs' touches,” sophomore guard Deja Kelly said. “And then the guards kind of started going on their own little run. They were hitting outside shots, jumpers, which is something we were going to make them do, and they did."
As the game clock ticked down, just one Tar Heel, at a mere 5-foot-8, stood in the way of the towering South Carolina forward and her team’s path to the Elite Eight.
Midway through the third quarter, Boston caught the ball in the paint and found herself, as she did many times throughout Friday’s game, in a sea of blue. Boston put the ball down, driving into Alexandra Zelaya as she inched towards the rim.
What she didn’t see, flashing by her right shoulder, was Kelly, who reached in to swipe at the ball.
Just three seconds later, the San Antonio native converted the steal on the other end with a lightning-fast coast-to-coast layup to bring UNC within four points.
In the end, though, that’s as close as the Tar Heels would come to regaining the lead.
While a casual glance at the stat sheet will note Boston’s late-game takeover, fans in attendance Friday night will remember the fight that Kelly and the undersized Tar Heels put up in the final minutes of their season.
Kelly went down clawing in the final quarter, with seven points, two rebounds and two assists. With a transition pull-up three, mid-range jumper and then a floater through traffic, Kelly brought her team within five points of the Gamecocks with a little over six minutes to play.
“I thought Deja Kelly did a great job at just putting us back on our heels and scoring,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “But then we had to take care of everybody else, and I thought we did a great job at taking care of everybody else.”
Despite their fourth quarter effort — which saw the Tar Heels outscore the Gamecocks 16-13 — UNC came up short. The rest of their team, for the most part, was held in check. Beyond Kelly’s 23 points, no one else on the North Carolina roster scored more than 10.
Less than four days before Friday night’s loss, thousands of miles away from Chapel Hill in Tucson, North Carolina was rejoicing in the halls of the McKale Memorial Center after upsetting Arizona in their second-round game.
“We’re a long way from home, but we’re going back home,” Banghart said after that win.
The Tar Heels had punched their ticket to Greensboro and the program's first Sweet 16 since 2015.
But little did they know, all roads would lead to Boston.
@dthsports | email@example.com
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.