Forward Aliyah Boston, guard Zia Cooke and guard Olivia Thompson were in the top-ranked recruiting class in 2019. They’re now entering their senior seasons, fresh off a national championship. (Photos courtesy of South Carolina Athletics)
Down one point with 9.1 seconds remaining in the 2021 Final Four, Zia Cooke and Aliyah Boston trapped a Stanford University player and forced a turnover.
Boston passed the ball to Brea Beal for a heavily contested layup with 2 seconds left. The shot missed.
But Boston, who sprinted up the court, grabbed the offensive rebound and put up a possible Final Four game-clinching shot. It also missed.
The tears running down Boston’s face cycled through media outlets for months. But it was not going to be Boston’s lasting legacy. She was only a sophomore. Better was on the way.
Now in her senior season, fresh off this year’s National Championship, she and her four classmates that make up the 2019 recruiting class have the potential to go down as one of the greatest recruiting classes of all time.
That recruiting class is made up of guard Olivia Thompson from Lexington, South Carolina., wing Brea Beal from Rock Island, Illinois, forward Laeticia Amihere from Mississauga, Ontario, guard Zia Cooke from Toledo, Ohio, and forward Aliyah Boston from Worcester, Massachusetts, by way of the Virgin Islands.
“She was as real as it gets,” Beal said, referring to coach Dawn Staley’s recruiting pitch. “She was very straightforward. It was no, you know, exaggerated, ‘Oh, you’re going love it here.’ It was just, this is what you should expect, what you can expect.”
Boston said that unlike with other programs, Staley didn’t make any promises on her official visit.
“Coach Staley was just like, ‘You know what, you come here and you work, I’m going to get you to be the player that you want to be,’” Boston said. “That kind of just stuck with me.”
As the class enters its final run, The Carolina News and Reporter looks back on its legacy.
As the Gamecocks entered the 2019-20 season with five new freshmen, the goal was to put the previous season’s double-digit losses and Sweet Sixteen exit in the past.
The roster was led by two senior captains, guard Tyasha Harris and forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, both of whom were part of the 2017 Championship team.
“They always kept us in line,” Beal said. “I think just being around them, I really got that pro mindset. They were ready for the (WNBA) before they even got drafted.”
Boston said those seniors each took a different approach in their leadership, but both were driven to take the freshmen under their wings.
“Every time I would get into ball-screen defense with Ty, I’d panic,” Boston said, referring to Harris’ disciplined style of leadership. “I was like, ‘I’m going to get it wrong and we got to do it again, and she’s going to be so mad.'”
That discipline paid off for the freshmen when the 2019-20 season began.
The Gamecocks finished with a 32-1 record regular season and an SEC Championship.
The team was unanimously ranked No. 1 in the AP and coaches polls and were heavily favored to win the national title.
“It was a good feeling surrounding us,” Beal said. “Going into the tournament, being led by those two seniors, it felt really good, it felt really positive.”
Then, COVID-19 hit, and the NCAA called off the rest of the season.
“When that news hit, it was super sad,” Thompson said. “We were all super hurt, especially for Ty and Kiki, just not being able to finish their senior seasons.”
“We were going to win the Natty,” Boston said. “I knew we were going to win. I just knew.”
The 2021 season opened with the raising of a banner recognizing their unanimous No. 1 finish, but it wasn’t the same as raising an NCAA tournament title banner.
“We were hungry 100% but also motivated,” Cooke said. “A lot of times we would tell ourselves, ‘Y’all we made it that far, now let’s go out here and complete it.”
Boston and Cooke were selected to preseason All-SEC teams, and the sophomore class started to shape the team’s identity.
The Gamecocks finished the regular season 22-4 with another SEC Championship, with Cooke leading the team in scoring and Boston leading in rebounds and blocks.
The 2021 NCAA tournament was played in San Antonio, Texas, and the Gamecocks beat all four opponents by double digits en route to the Final Four.
“To actually be in the Final Four, it was a dream come true,” Cooke said.
The Gamecocks first faced a 29-2 Stanford.
It was this game that would haunt the players for an entire year. The Gamecocks, down one in the final seconds, forced a turnover but infamously missed two game-winning layups as time expired.
“That was really hard for me,” said Boston, who missed the last shot. “I didn’t really want to watch basketball. I didn’t really want to do anything with it. Because all I could see was the shot over and over and over.”
A photo of Boston crying on the court afterward went viral.
“It was like my tears were just a running theme,” Boston said. “I remember we did something with Slam (magazine), and coach was like, ‘We want to turn that frown upside down.’”
And they did.
The Gamecocks returned every player from the previous year and added another No. 1 recruiting class.
“We played a lot of Top 25 teams in the country, and we played them super early,” Cooke said. “But I felt like it prepared us in a lot of different ways to prepare for the Final Four and the tournament in general.”
A major early game came against the University of Connecticut, ranked No. 2, in the Bahamas.
South Carolina was down 28-15 at one point, but a 16-3 run in the fourth quarter lead them to a comeback win.
After that game, senior guard Destanni Henderson went down with an injury. Laeticia Amihere took over point guard responsibilities.
“We did a pretty good job at holding up to our standard while she was gone,” Cooke said. “And then once she came back, she picked up the tempo right away.”
Henderson returned just in time for a familiar foe: No. 2 Stanford.
“I was a little nervous about that game, because I know they had the same team coming back,” Cooke said. “We failed before, playing against them.”
The story was looking familiar: Stanford led 42-28 at half.
“I was like, ‘No, no, this is not happening. It can’t happen,’” Boston said.
The halftime adjustments worked. The Gamecocks went on a 22-7 run in the third quarter and won 65-61.
“When we did that, we were like, OK, we have another gear that we can kick it into,” Thompson said. “That was a crazy comeback. But it definitely shows how driven we are and how focused we are.”
The Gamecocks finished the regular season 29-2, with Coach Staley as national Coach of the Year and Boston as the national player of the year and defensive player of the year.
But they lost the SEC tournament championship to the University of Kentucky. But that didn’t deter the Gamecocks’ motivation entering the tournament.
“I was so ready, so amped up and motivated,” Beal said. “Ready to, you know, beat a team to a point where you don’t have to worry about them coming back.”
The Gamecocks marched through the tournament, facing the University of Louisville in the Final Four.
“I was super nervous about playing Louisville,” Cooke said. “It was just knowing that that’s where we lost the year before.”
They handled their business, though, winning 72-59 and punching their ticket to the National Championship.
“I kind of got chills and I almost started crying because Coach Staley has told us, ‘You’re going to be tested over and over again until you can get over that hump,’” Boston said. “Even though we only went to the Final Four once, that was our hump.”
Two days later, they faced Connecticut.
“It was not one doubt in my mind that we weren’t winning the national championship,” Cooke said. “I just knew it was going to happen just because of the confidence that we had going into that game.”
The confidence showed in a wire-to-wire dominant performance. They won the national championship 64-49.
“Just pure happiness, just celebrating with your teammates and how happy everyone was, you know, seeing how our hard work paid off was just, it was amazing,” Thompson said.
“It took me to get back to the hotel to like, sit there and just look at pictures on my phone,” Beal said. “Three years ago, four years ago, I’m watching it on TV. But it definitely took like a week and some change to really let it set in — then going to public places and like, oh, you’re a national champion.”
SENIOR YEAR: WHAT’S NEXT?
The Gamecocks entered this season with their familiar No. 1 ranking.
They hope to repeat as champs.
“To run it back, I think that’s definitely our goal,” Boston said. “Coming in, we said we wanted to win a National Championship or a couple and so this would make our couple right here.”
For some of these seniors, the goal is to take the same responsibilities that Herbert Harrigan and Harris had when they were freshmen.
“This is a special program,” Thompson said. “It doesn’t just start with Coach Staley, it starts with all the groups passing down all that, not necessarily knowledge, but experience.”
Being one who is now passing her experience on to others is strange for Beal.
“It’s kind of — I don’t want to say scary, but it’s like time flies,” Beal said.
And history repeats itself.
“We have a special group, this freshman class, and it’s truly amazing,” Boston said.
The 2019 Class has seen a multitude of challenges and accomplishments in their tenure. (Graphic by Jayden Simmons)
Boston and Cooke were selected to the preseason All-SEC teams this year. They’ve both led the team in scoring since joining in 2019.
Laeticia Amihere stepped up to play point guard following an injury to Destanni Henderson last season. She also represented Canada in the 2020 Olympics.
Olivia Thompson, a Lexington native, said she wanted to be a Gamecock her whole life. She said her job as a senior is to pass on the same experience that she received as a freshman.