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Why preseason favorite South Carolina, reigning player of the year Aliyah Boston are poised to enter elite territory

The last collegiate basketball fans saw of the South Carolina Gamecocks was done through tricolored confetti and pieces of basketball nets. Make no doubt about it, that’s exactly what the Gamecocks want again.

“In reality, winning a national championship is what everyone comes to South Carolina for so we just want to run it back,” center Aliyah Boston told Yahoo Sports, through her partnership with Orangetheory announced Thursday, of the goals for the season.

And they have the squad to do it. South Carolina is ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason poll and the clear favorite to repeat as champions when the season concludes in Dallas at the Final Four in April. It’s in large part because it has most of that championship team back and features one of the best, most experienced frontcourts in the nation.

The 6-foot-5 Boston (16.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 2.4 bpg), who was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player and the unanimous national player of the year in 2021-22, returns for her senior campaign. She’s one of four returning senior starters, including 5-9 guard Zia Cooke, 6-2 forward Victaria Saxton and 6-1 guard Brea Beal. The first two off the bench in 6-4 senior forward Laeticia Amihere and 6-7 junior center Kamilla Cardoso also return.

The one major hole they’ll need to fill is that of starting point guard Destanni Henderson, a key shooter in the title game who was drafted by the Indiana Fever a week later. Henderson, known as “Henny,” averaged the most minutes of any Gamecock with a team-high 3.6 assists and second-best 11.5 points per game.

“Henny was a big part of what we did, but I think a lot of people have stepped up,” Boston, named a unanimous preseason All-American, said.

If South Carolina runs it back, it will join elite powerhouse programs Connecticut, Tennessee and USC as the only back-to-back champions in the women’s game. The Gamecocks attempted to join that club after their 2017 national title, but were crushed by UConn in the regional final despite 27 points from A’ja Wilson, now a two-time WNBA MVP.

Aliyah Boston celebrates with her South Carolina teammates after beating Connecticut to win the 2022 NCAA women's basketball championship on April 3, 2022, at Target Center in Minneapolis. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Aliyah Boston celebrates with her South Carolina teammates after beating Connecticut to win the 2022 NCAA women's basketball championship on April 3, 2022, at Target Center in Minneapolis. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

“There are not very many teams that have repeated. We want to be in that number,” head coach Dawn Staley said at SEC media day last month. “We’ve never been here in our program. Well, yeah, we have. The first time around didn’t turn out too good. So we want to be better than we were the first time around. We’ve got a lot more firepower to do that.”

When South Carolina ousted UConn for its second title last year, it cemented the program as a new powerhouse. But for dynasty status, which at its loftiest is the 11 championships won by the Huskies, there needs to be more. And now is the prime time to solidify it.

“To be a dynasty, I do think you’ve got to have a little back-to-back championship in you,” Staley said last month. “I do think you have to have sustained success in your conference, in the type of conference that we have.

“When it comes to attracting the best, it’s dynasty-like. It’s dynasty-like. I don’t think we can deem ourselves [a dynasty] just yet.”

That top-notch recruiting includes 6-3 freshman forward Ashlyn Watkins, a Columbia, S.C., native ranked 12th in the 2022 class by HoopGurlz, and 6-0 point guard Talaysia Cooper, ranked 18th out of nearby Turbeville, S.C. Kierra Fletcher, the 2017 Michigan Gatorade Player of the Year, joined as a graduate transfer from Georgia Tech.

South Carolina looks down SEC gauntlet

South Carolina is joined in the preseason poll by conference foes No. 5 Tennessee and No. 16 LSU. Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and Ole Miss all received votes.

“SEC games are still important,” Boston told Yahoo Sports. “We still want to make sure we’re winning that, staying on top of the ball with that.”

The Gamecocks are the favorites by conference coaches to win the SEC again after doing it with a 15-1 mark marred only by a conference-opening loss to a shorthanded Missouri team. They stormed through the rest of the regular season schedule averaging a 21.9-point winning margin with four of at least 30-plus points.

But their run to a third consecutive conference tournament championship, and seventh in eight years, ended with a shocking upset to Kentucky. This is a league that prepares a team to win a national championship, Staley said.

“We know that every time we step on the floor, any of us, any of us can lose to any of us,” she said. “It just feels like the norm in SEC play.”

The Gamecocks tip off SEC play on Dec. 29 at home against Texas A&M. They draw Kentucky and Missouri for back-to-back games in January and await LSU, Florida, Ole Miss and Tennessee during an 11-day stretch in February.

South Carolina will also have to navigate through tough nonconference opponents. Its second game of the season is No. 17 Maryland (Nov. 11, ESPN2), and a week later, the Gamecocks travel to No. 2 Stanford (Nov. 20) for an afternoon tilt on ABC. They’ll also play No. 23 South Dakota State (Dec. 15, ESPN2) and No. 6 UConn (Feb. 5, FOX).

Taking ‘meat and potatoes’ of season lightly

The “big worry” Staley admitted she had was that the journey will be stale for this group. South Carolina’s trajectory the last three years has been that of incremental final steps to a championship it ultimately procured.

It was ranked No. 1 in the country when the NCAA canceled the 2020 tournament because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It then came one last-second basket short of the title game in 2021, falling to eventual champion Stanford by one point. In April at Target Center in Minneapolis, the Gamecocks finally reached the summit.

“Once you’ve won and you return basically almost your entire team, you tend to want to take the beginning part of it, the journey, the meat and potatoes of the season lightly,” Staley said. “They haven’t shown signs of it, but we haven’t really been healthy-healthy, either. We’ve had our most successful seasons when we’ve been healthy.”

Staley said the first task will be for the Gamecocks to be healthy. Fletcher has a “couple nagging injuries,” Staley said, and Raven Johnson, the only point guard on the roster, is coming off an ACL tear that ended her freshman year. Then the coaching staff can evaluate the mood of the team and find ways to “keep this team engaged and challenged every day that we’re out there practicing.”

Aliyah Boston and South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley celebrate in the locker room after winning the 2022 NCAA women’s basketball championship on April 3, 2022 in Minneapolis. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Aliyah Boston and South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley celebrate in the locker room after winning the 2022 NCAA women’s basketball championship on April 3, 2022 in Minneapolis. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Offseason of NIL for the champs

For the first time in NCAA history, the newly named champion players were able to spend the entirety of their offseasons on name, image and likeness deals.

Boston, who had a special moment post-championship with WNBA stars including Wilson and Candace Parker, was chief among them. Her latest deal with Orangetheory announced Thursday includes a customized “Shot Clock Aliyah Boston Workout” that will be available at participating studios only on Nov. 10.

The workout features Boston on a video visual aid screen in-studio and includes aspects of her offseason training regiment, including coach-led agility drills (a first for the company), reactive work and medicine ball partner exercises.

“Definitely some core because core plays an important role with us on the court,” Boston said. “So just things like that. I think it’s super fun.”

Boston first signed an NIL deal with Orangetheory in March 2022, a year after the company stepped in to offer studios and equipment to the NCAA women’s teams following news of the weight room inequality between it and the men’s tournament. It did the same for the Women’s College World Series.

“I think them doing this [workout] is kind of just showing how they are really just sticking with women and how they’re looking to make the world better and the sports world as well,” Boston said.

Staley said both Boston and Cooke are “making a lot of money” in the space. They and every player on the team will make at least $25,000 each after an NIL deal with the Gamecocks’ collective, Garnet Trust, and sports marketing firm NOCAP Sports was announced in September.

It’s a huge opportunity for women athletes who don’t go on to make as hefty of salaries in the professional leagues and have historically not been signed to many marketing deals.