Aliyah Boston on South Carolina’s record-breaking defense: ‘We take pride in that’

South Carolina women's basketball team during the 2022 NCAA March Madness tournament
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GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — No. 1 South Carolina has leaned heavily on its defense in the women’s NCAA Tournament.

There’s no option, Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said, if her players want to stay on the floor and South Carolina wants to keep advancing.

“They know they’re going to have play defense,” Staley explained, “or else the likelihood of them playing a whole lot is slim to none.”

Message received.

The Gamecocks (31-2) were third in the country — and tops among the Power Five and Big East conferences — in fewest points allowed at 50.2 this season. They’ve taken it to history-making levels in the tournament.

South Carolina, the event’s overall top seed, limited to Howard to 21 points in an opening round game, the fewest points ever allowed in an NCAA Tournament game. The Gamecocks followed that by holding Miami to 33 points in the second round to reach their eighth straight Sweet 16.

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Neither Howard nor Miami made a field goal in the second quarter against the Gamecocks.

Things ramp up in the Greensboro Region on Friday night with South Carolina going against fifth-seeded North Carolina (25-6), which was third in the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring this season at 73.5 points a game.

“You need to be able to stop the other team in scoring,” South Carolina All-American Aliyah Boston said. “So we take pride in that, making sure we’re getting defensive stops.”

Particularly when the Gamecocks’ offense has struggled in recent games. They’ve shot 36% or less the past three games, including making 18 of 61 shots in the win over Miami last Sunday. Against Howard, South Carolina took 79 shots to score 79 points.

Defensive success is essential, Staley said, “because when we’ve shot the way we’ve shot the last two games, or four out of five, or whatever it is, you never know, you know?”

Defense has long been part of Staley’s DNA. The former college national player of the year at Virginia 30 years ago, three-time Olympic gold medalist and fiery WNBA pro was a relentless defender.

She led the Cavaliers in steals all four of her seasons from 1989-92 and ranks second all-time in that category at the school with 454.

“I think defense is a decision,” Staley said. “You’re either going to do it or you’re not.”

South Carolina’s done it this season with its dominant frontcourt.

The team led the country with 255 blocked shots and had three players among the nation’s top 100 in that area — the 6-foot-5 Boston is eighth in the country with 85 blocks, 6-7 Kamilla Cardoso is 74th with 45 and 6-2 Victaria Saxton is 82nd with 44 blocks.

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Staley’s demanded defense since taking over a sagging program before the 2008-09 season. Only twice in the past 12 years have the Gamecocks given up more than 60 points a game.

South Carolina’s has not wavered this season against the country’s best teams. The Gamecocks allowed just 55 points a game and went 11-0 against ranked opponents. Their impressive performances includes wins over NCAA top seeds North Carolina State (66-57) in November and Stanford (65-61) in December.

Tar Heels coach Courtney Banghart has spent the week breaking down South Carolina’s defense and found little room to move. She said the Gamecocks post players are picking players up on the perimeter while their guards stick close and take away options for easy baskets.

“They’re shrinking the court with their length, size, and physicality,” Banghart said.

Staley said their junior class led by starters in Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal came in two years ago eager to learn, defend and gain playing time.

“I think since we’re older now, we know what it’s all about to play defense,” Cooke said. “It’s just all coming together at this point.”

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”