COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Champions collide on the court Monday night in Columbia.
“I expect it to be physical and intense,” says freshman forward Aliyah Boston. “I know there’s going to be a great crowd in here.”
No. 1 South Carolina (17-1, 5-0 SEC) hosts No. 10 Mississippi State (16-2. 4-0 SEC) for a 7 P.M. tipoff on January 20th. These two programs combined account for the last six SEC regular-season championships and past five SEC Tournament titles. The Gamecocks and Bulldogs squared off in three of those five tournament title games.
“It’s always a matchup in which we go at it,” Gamecocks Head Basketball Coach Dawn Staley added. “Usually, one team makes a move in the fourth quarter. We battle. Certainly, being in our place, and having a great crowd, which we anticipate, will favor us. I hope we use it to our advantage.”
In the paint, Carolina’s held a significant advantage over opponents thanks to Boston. The freshman enforcer leads the league in blocks (3.0 blocks per game) and ranks ninth nationally in that category.
“My teammates have done a great job in helping me,” Boston said. “Also, just paying attention to what the offense is doing and where I should be for help.”
Staley is impressed with Boston’s intelligence and approach to the defensive side.
“She is probably the youngest more locked in players,” Staley said. “She has a really good understanding of what it is to play on both sides of the basketball. There’s not an area in the game that she does not think is important. So, when you have a player that is locked in like that and young, and you know you have her for another three years, it gives you great comfort knowing that.”
Boston plays like a veteran as she cherishes all the new opportunities competing on this stage offers.
“This environment is just new to me compared to high school,” Boston added. “Seeing the great crowd and atmosphere, in general, is a great feeling.”
Expect Colonial Life Arena to be rocking when the Gamecocks and Bulldogs battle on national television. It provides an excellent experience for this young Gamecock roster.
“It’s cool,” Staley said. “We’re giving them an experience that one, they probably were not even paying attention to, like, being the number one team in the country. They want to win national championships, but along the way, certain things have to happen for them. You have to be able to play in the spotlight and target on your back. We put ourselves in a position to do that. They’ve done well in handling that.”
Mississippi State provides one of the most stringent tests to date. Like South Carolina, the Bulldogs rank in the top five nationally in scoring margin. Both programs know how to dominate games.
“They got different looking players with different names on the back of their jersey’s,” Staley said. “But they are the same Mississippi State team that is calculated. They like to get their bigs involved and find mismatches on the floor. We have to be better in those instances.”
Excellent communication will be vital to upending the Bulldogs on Monday night. Senior guard Ty Harris, along with Boston, will lead the way in that department and must again in this high-stakes matchup.
“Our players are so locked into their matchups sometimes we are not as sharp as we need to be as far as communication,” says Staley. “To have someone like Boston or Harris, that really understands the game, so you got Ty up front and Aliyah in the back of it, somewhere in the middle somebody is going to reap the benefits of them communicating.”