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How Worcester played an important role in Aliyah Boston’s path to women’s basketball stardom

Junior forward Aliyah Boston is the top scorer on a South Carolina team that is ranked No. 1 in the nation.Sean Rayford/Associated Press

Aliyah Boston never questioned trading island life for hard New England winters. More than 1,700 miles from her childhood home, she found her dreams within reach.

A 6-foot-5-inch junior forward on the top-ranked South Carolina women’s basketball team, Boston spent part of middle school and all of high school in Central Massachusetts after moving from the US Virgin Islands. Her adolescent years in Worcester paved the way to her ascension to the top of women’s college basketball.

“I’d definitely call it my second home,” Boston said. “Without Massachusetts, I don’t know where I’d be exposure-wise.”

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Born in St. Thomas, Boston started playing basketball around age 10, emulating her sister, Alexis Boston, who is 2½ years older. After repeated standout performances at basketball events throughout New England, the Boston sisters moved to Worcester in the summer of 2014 and attended school there. They lived with their aunt, Jenaire Hodge, and cousin, Kira Punter.

Cleone Boston, their mother, said it was a difficult decision to send her teenage daughters to Massachusetts, but she trusted them in her sister’s care. The US mainland offered a more competitive basketball scene and a wider range of academic opportunities.

“They were a big fish in a small pond, but they had to find a bigger pond,” Cleone Boston said. “For Aliyah, it allowed her to have bigger dreams.”

Back then, the dream was to graduate college debt-free.

“It wasn’t USA Basketball, it wasn’t being the No. 1 player in the country, it was getting out of college free of charge,” Cleone Boston said. “When she was dreaming, she could see it because she was there. It allowed her to keep dreaming, working, and believing.”

Hodge hadn’t spent significant time with her nieces until they moved in. Hodge, who moved to Worcester from Maryland in 2010 but grew up in the Virgin Islands, said her household “was definitely Caribbean,” with sprinkles of mainland influence.

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For Boston, Hodge’s curry chicken and goat, oxtails, fried plantains, and potato stuffing — plus listening to favorite musical artists such as R. City, Machel Montano, Destra, and Buju Banton — made “Massachusetts feel like home quickly.”

“Even though Aliyah lived in Massachusetts,” Hodge said, “she still had a Caribbean parent living with her here.”

Aliyah Boston (left) and sister Alexis in their Worcester days.courtesy alexis boston

Boston’s recruiting stock rose rapidly. She shattered Worcester Academy’s all-time scoring record, was a three-time Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year, and ranked as ESPN’s third overall recruit in the class of 2019.

Boston wasn’t a NEPSAC All-Star as a freshman. As a 15-year-old, she did not make the USA U-17 team. She made it the next year at 16.

“That was the snowball that kept going,” Worcester Academy coach Sherry Levin said. “It truly was a progression, and she really knew she wanted to be … the best player ever.”

Together they perfected “the AB,” Boston’s signature reverse drop-step post spin move.

Alexis Boston graduated from the former Holy Name High School, which has since merged with St. Peter-Marian to form St. Paul. After stints at two junior colleges, she joined Aliyah at South Carolina, serving as a team manager while getting her bachelor’s degree.

Alexis said Aliyah kept a keen eye on her goals during their time in Massachusetts.

“She was always herself, even when we transitioned from St. Thomas to the States,” said Alexis, who is pursuing her MBA at Thomas University in Georgia and playing basketball. “She still did her thing in basketball. She played more aggressively in the States.”

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To list all of Boston’s basketball achievements would be a herculean task. In short, she played a key role on Team USA’s gold-medal performances in various tournaments, led Worcester Academy to a NEPSAC title, and picked up McDonald’s and Jordan Brand Classic All-American honors before enrolling at South Carolina.

“Everything was pretty comfortable,” Boston said, “because I moved when I was so young. I didn’t really know what to expect. It was just another experience and to see what it brings.”

In her first year at South Carolina, Boston earned National Freshman of the Year and All-American honors from multiple organizations. As a sophomore, she earned her second straight Lisa Leslie Award as the country’s best center, and was SEC Defensive Player of the Year and a unanimous First-Team All-American.

South Carolina went 32-1 in Boston’s freshman year, but the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks reached the Final Four last year. They’re 12-1 so far in 2021-22 behind another standout campaign from Boston (team-high 17.0 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks per game).

While she doesn’t miss the frigid Massachusetts winters, Boston acknowledges how her stint in the state impacted her.

“Massachusetts had people that helped me within my development,” she said. “It definitely played an important role.”

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Games to watch

With most NCAA conferences starting league play this week, there are intriguing matchups to watch. Harvard (6-6) plays at Ivy League favorite Princeton (7-4) Sunday at 2 p.m. UMass (12-2) plays Rhode Island (10-3) Wednesday in a contest between the top two teams in the Atlantic 10 … Harvard guard Harmoni Turner picked up her first Ivy League Player of the Week and second straight Rookie of the Week honors. The 5-10 Turner posted 19 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 steals in a 93-53 win over Colgate Dec. 21.