September 30, 2023

Aliyah Boston, A’ja Wilson bring South Carolina connection to annual event

LAS VEGAS — In Aliyah Boston’s first game at South Carolina, she became the first player in Division I history to secure a triple-double in a college debut. It was the seventh in the school’s history, putting her in some rare air that didn’t include predecessor and 2017 South Carolina National Champion A’ja Wilson. It only heightened comparisons between the two and raised Boston’s expectations.

Boston, like Wilson, continues to live up to them even after leaving the Columbia campus. Less than four years later – and with a second South Carolina natty on the shelf after Boston’s tenure – the duo will enter the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game together as two of the most recognized and high-quality players in the league. Team Wilson, featuring Boston, will take on Breanna Stewart’s squad at Michelob Ultra Arena on Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC).

Wilson has often shied away from comparing Boston’s talents to her own, instead wanting the younger player to have her own spotlight and be celebrated for her own skills, style and success. But their bond has always been there, from Wilson celebrating on the field with the 2021 national championship team to drafting Boston at No. 5 overall in the All-Star Draft this month.

“Gamecocks, we’re going to hold it, always, forever,” Wilson said when announcing her pick on the All-Star Draft telecast. “I don’t need to prep her because, you know, Dawn Staley has already prepped us for these moments, so she’s going to shine bright under those big lights, and I’m excited.”

It’s another way they’ll be forever linked, and a nod to the powerhouse built by Staley, the Gamecocks’ head coach, that goes beyond winning college basketball games. Like UConn before it, South Carolina wants to successfully prepare players for their next-level dreams.

Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson attempts to maneuver the ball around Indiana Fever center Aliyah Boston in the first half of their June 4, 2023 game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.  (Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports)
Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson attempts to maneuver the ball around Indiana Fever center Aliyah Boston in the first half of their June 4, 2023 game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. (Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports)

“Coach Staley does a great job of preparing our minds — and of course our bodies — but our minds to just be a pro at whatever you do. Be disciplined and stay in it,” Wilson said on a video call last month with reporters. “When I switched to the competition, I already had a mentality. I already knew how to move, I already knew who I wanted in my circle on and off the field. The whole nine.

“I think Coach has been a great help for us navigating that on a professional level.”

The program had one All-Star alumna, Shannon Johnson, in its history before Wilson was named a month after being ranked No. 1 in the 2018 WNBA Draft. Now a two-time MVP, she is making her fifth All-Star appearance in as many chances (the 2020 game was not played due to COVID-19).

It is her third time as captain and second consecutive year as top fan vote earner. Wilson averages 19.7 points (sixth), 9.3 rebounds (fifth) and 2.1 blocks (first) for the leading Aces (19-2) at halftime. She ranks first in earnings shares (5.9), according to Her Hoops Stats.

Boston is the eighth rookie in league history to earn All-Star starter honors and the first since 2014. She finished fourth in fan voting and has proven herself as a franchise-changing player just two months into the season for the Indiana Fever.

“My biggest goal was to adapt quickly,” Boston said. “And I think as time has gone on, games have passed, I’ve been able to do that, especially because we’ve already played against a few teams more than once.”

She said last month that being named an All-Star wasn’t on her list of things she thought about or wrote down as a goal, and she was surprised to hear the news. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert called to tell her when the Fever landed in Vegas for a series of games against Wilson and the Aces.

“I was at the airport trying not to respond on the phone,” she said. “I was like, keep calm, keep calm. And then I texted my family group chat, I was like ‘Guys, guess what?’”

Boston averages 15.4 points (20th), 8.4 rebounds (eighth) and 1.3 blocks (10th) for a team of Fever (5-15) that has lost 12 of its 15 games by single digits. It includes an overtime loss to New York heading into intermission. She hits 61% of her shots, a very efficient clip bested by any player who attempts at least three shots per game. And she finished sixth in the players’ vote for frontcourt players, a clear indication that her presence on the team is deserved.

Wilson also drafted Atlanta Dream guard and first-time All-Star Allisha Gray, a member of the 2017 title team and close friend, to a roster primarily made up of her Las Vegas Aces teammates and Gamecocks connections. (Stewart went all out for New York Liberty and former Seattle Storm teammates.) They are currently three of eight South Carolina players in the league, one of the senior alumna ranks in the country.

South Carolina is tied for most players in this All-Star Game with Notre Dame (Arike Ogunbowale, Jackie Young, Jewell Loyd). It is also the only program of the past four champions to have an All-Star in the 2023 game.

Connecticut, the historic powerhouse that has sent dozens of alumni to the pros and many as top picks, has Stewart and Napheesa Collier in the game. Oregon also has two with Sabrina Ionescu and Satou Sabally, who became Nos. 1 and 2 in the 2020 draft.

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