Freshman Aliyah Boston off to fast start for No. 5 Gamecocks

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              South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, right, checks on Aliyah Boston while a trainer tends to Boston after an injury during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Clemson, Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Aliyah Boston doesn’t have a secret to her shot-blocking success.

The South Carolina freshman’s explanation: “I don’t think they see me coming.”

Possibly, though it’s hard to miss the 6-foot-5 Boston, not the way the latest in the line of talented South Carolina “big girls” is playing to start her college career. She leads the nation in blocked shots with 24, is the leading scorer and rebounder for the fifth-ranked Gamecocks (6-0) and recorded a triple-double in her college debut.

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley didn’t really want to go there, but said there’s no other way to say it; the 17-year-old Boston is ahead of former Gamecocks All-Americans Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson.

“They’re probably going to shoot me texts after I say this, but she’s ahead of them,” Staley said, saying communication is the biggest reason. “A’ja and Alaina had older players that they took a backseat to. Aliyah’s just being a leader and she’s just calling what she sees.”

Boston will get to find out this week how she and the Gamecocks stack up against some of the best women’s teams in the country.

South Carolina is part of a talent-laden field in the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam, which is being played in Boston’s home in St. Thomas. Boston’s been living in the Massachusetts since she was 12, developing her basketball skills away from her family and friends and everything.

“For me, at first, I was fine,” Boston said. “I just thought it was cool, but I know it was hard for my parents.”

Boston’s mother, Cleone, made sure her family in St. Thomas was always a presence in Aliyah’s life. Cleone would call and video chat with her daughter. The conversations would include daily devotionals and updates on what was happening in her daughter’s life and with her promising basketball career.

Aliyah Boston played at the Worcester Academy in Massachusetts, living with an aunt while attending school. USA Basketball took notice of her skills and Boston won gold medals competing on the American Under 16, Under 17 and Under 19 teams.

Boston and the Gamecocks have one of marquee win already, a 63-54 victory at then-No. 4 Maryland on Nov. 10. The eight-team tournament on St. Thomas will provide a stronger measure of where South Carolina is at the start of the season.

The Gamecocks open against No. 17 Indiana on Thursday and, after facing Washington State on Friday, close the event against No. 2 Baylor on Sunday. The tournament’s other side includes No. 1 Oregon, No. 8 Louisville, Oklahoma State and Texas-Arlington.

Boston will have plenty of support on hand.

Cleone, said relatives and friends throughout the Caribbean are flying into St. Thomas to watch the Gamecocks and cheer on Aliyah. Cleone is also planning a combination homecoming, holiday gathering for South Carolina, she told The Associated Press in a phone interview from St. Thomas.

Cleone acknowledged the difficulty of letting her daughter leave home as a middle-school age girl but said she knew it was the right thing to do because “Aliyah always had a gift. God’s gift.”

Cleone and Al Boston, Aliyah’s father, traveled to Maryland to see their daughter’s performance. They’ve yet to see a game at South Carolina so they’re thrilled at watching her this week.

Basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli said Boston is way ahead of the curve on the game’s fundamentals, concepts and intangibles.

“She’s mature beyond her years.” Antonelli said. “She’s highly competitive. She wants to win. I love watching her.

“She moves better than you think and faster than you think.”

Boston credits her teammates with her early success.

“I thought that it would take me a little bit longer” to excel in college, Boston said. “But I think my teammates have done a great job helping me adapt to playing college basketball because it’s just a totally new step.”

And it’s just the first step for the talented newcomer.

“She’s got it,” Staley said, “she’s got it in her first year.”