For someone who's from the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the average daily temperature is around 80, Aliyah Boston is quickly warming to Minneapolis, where the average daily temperature is not so much.
"This is my first time in Minneapolis, and I love it,'' the South Carolina forward said Saturday. "This is my type of weather because I'd rather be cold than hot.''
Whether cold or hot, Boston, the Naismith Award winner as national player of the year in women's basketball, has been quite comfortable during the Final Four at Target Center. On Friday, she scored 23 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in the Gamecocks' 72-59 victory over Louisville in the national semifinals. On Sunday night, she'll try to lead South Carolina (34-2) to is second national championship against Connecticut (30-5), an 11-time titlist.
Sunday's game will be the second meeting between the Gamecocks and Huskies. South Carolina won the first, 73-57 in the championship game of the Battle for Atlantis in November. During that tournament, the 6-5 junior received some verbal encouragement from coach Dawn Staley that elevated her game.
"After we played Buffalo in the Bahamas, Coach Staley was like, 'You're not being dominant. This is not the Aliyah Boston we're expecting, we're looking for,''' Boston said. "It kind of just flipped a switch, and I'm glad she said something. It really got me upset because I was like, 'I'm doing fine. I'm playing good.' ''
Beginning with the victory against UConn in which Boston had 22 points and 15 rebounds, she has posted double-doubles in all but two games.
"I just came out and said, 'I'm not going to be denied. I'm going to crash the boards. I'm going to do what my teammates need me to do,' '' said Boston, who's averaging 17 points and 12.4 rebounds this season. "It's helped us out every single game, and I'm just going to continue to do that for one more.''
UConn coach Geno Auriemma knows Boston will present a tremendous challenge.
"How do we guard her?'' he asked. "I don't know. I'm open for suggestions.''
Family ties to Minnesota
Connecticut freshman guard Azzi Fudd is no stranger to Minnesota. Her grandparents, Tom and Karen Duffy, live in Shoreview, and she has an "endless'' number of cousins who live in the state.
"I've been coming here since I was in my mom's stomach,'' Fudd said. "I've never missed the Minnesota State Fair. I come here every summer, so this place means a lot to me.''
Azzi ranks third on the team in scoring with 12.5 points per game, and she's the Huskies' leading three-point shooter (57-for-133, 42.9%). When she saw that Minneapolis would be the host of the Final Four, excitement kicked in.
"Knowing the Final Four was here, it made me nervous from the start of the season when I wasn't sure if I was gonna make it, because all my family, that's all they were saying,'' she said. "They were like, 'Can we see you in the Final Four?' And, I mean, we went through so many ups and downs this year it was crazy, but just hearing them say that, it kind of gave me extra motivation to get here.''
Beal's defense stands out
South Carolina boasts the national defensive player of the year in the post with Boston, but the team's most valuable defender entering the title game arguably is Brea Beal.
The 6-1 junior guard will primarily be responsible for slowing Paige Bueckers, who has led the Huskies in scoring in the NCAA tournament.
"Definitely I do take pride in it," Beal said, referring to her defense. "Having to guard a high-value shooter, a high-value scorer I realize that that's a majority of the team's heart right there. So, when they do tend to have a bad game or a slow game, I do take pride in that."
Beal had 12 points, two steals and two blocks in South Carolina's over Louisville. Her size and length disrupted Cardinals All-America guard Hailey Van Lith, who was held to nine points and one three-pointer after four consecutive 20-point performances.
"I feel like she came [into the program] with so much intensity defensively," South Carolina guard Zia Cooke said. "It just always stood out with her."
Taking a stand
Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley having a chance to become the first Black Division I coach to win two national titles already is setting a notable example for others to follow.
But Staley goes beyond her success on the court to uplift and support women athletes and coaches of color with being vocal about race and social justice issues.
"She gets a lot of stuff thrown at her," Beal said. "For her to have the courage to continue to speak up and continue to be a leader as a woman of color, she's just amazing to watch, especially for young girls."
Staley's personality has rubbed off on her players who are less afraid to speak their mind on social media because they know their coach will stand by them.
"Before college I was shy," Beal said. "If something were wrong, I probably wouldn't speak about it and stand up for anything. I learned from that from her. Just to be able to, through adversity, ... stand up for what you truly believe in."
Remembering the Royals
Before returning to Connecticut for the fall semester last August, Bueckers surprised her old Hopkins teammates by watching them play in a high school tournament in St. Joseph, Minn.
Spending the weekend with them, Bueckers and current Royals stars such as Gophers recruit Amaya Battle and Arizona recruit Maya Nnaji talked about how much of a dream scenario it would be for Hopkins and UConn to both win championships this spring.
Bueckers, who hopes to take care of her end of the deal Sunday night, has been a mentor for Battle, Nnaji and other Hopkins players since she graduated two years ago.
"I've just tried to be a positive influence on them," Bueckers said. "Just push them and make them be better players and people as well. I just want to be someone who they can always talk to and always lean on."
Bringing the noise
With Bueckers leading UConn, the Gamecocks realize they might be facing a pro-Huskies crowd Sunday night.
"We've played in a lot of great gyms against a lot of great teams, so we know there's going to be a great crowd,'' Boston said. "… No matter how many people in the crowd and no matter how much noise they make, they're not the ones on the floor. We're making sure we lock into what's happening in our circle.''
Beal believes the Gamecocks will be well-represented.
"We have such a strong fanbase, and they follow us anywhere,'' the junior said. "Even in an opponent's crowd, we still hear them and that still gets us going.''
Staff writers Marcus Fuller and John Volk contributed to this notebook.