"I dropped my phone," Boston recalled. "And I just kept crying, because I was thinking about our seniors and how this year was it for them. I thought, 'They're going to be so hurt.' "
Everyone empathized with seniors nationwide who'd lost their last chance at the NCAA tournament. But freshmen also saw their first chance at the Big Dance delayed.
Many freshmen have starred in the NCAA tournament over the years, beginning with USC's Cheryl Miller in 1983, the year after the event launched. Texas' Clarissa Davis (1986), Tennessee's Dena Head (1989), Stanford's Rachel Hemmer (1992), Tennessee's Chamique Holdsclaw (1996), Tennessee's Tamika Catchings (1998), UConn's Ann Strother (2003), Maryland's Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman (2006), UConn's Breanna Stewart (2013) and Baylor's NaLyssa Smith (2019) all were instrumental in winning the NCAA championship in their freshman seasons.
Boston and fellow freshmen Zia Cooke and Brea Beal were starters this season for the No. 1-ranked Gamecocks, who would have been the top seed in the nearby Greenville Regional. The trio will return next season, as will a lot of other freshmen nationwide who stood out in 2019-20.
Here's a look at 10 of the best rookies, all players who we expect will carry their success into 2020-21.
1. Aliyah Boston, South Carolina Gamecocks, F
Season stats: 12.5 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 2.6 BPG
She was in foul trouble in the lone game South Carolina lost: to Indiana on Thanksgiving in Boston's hometown of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. But Boston was a quick learner; she didn't foul out again the rest of the season. Like Gamecocks legend A'ja Wilson before her (although Wilson came off the bench in all but one game her freshman season), the 6-foot-5 Boston should continue to blossom into a national player of the year candidate. South Carolina is our pick as preseason No. 1 for 2020-21.
2. Ayoka Lee, Kansas State Wildcats, C
Season stats: 15.7 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 3.1 BPG
The 6-5 Lee redshirted with injury in 2018-19, then dominated this season. A 12-time Big 12 freshman of the week, she won the league's freshman of the year award. She ranked sixth in Division I in blocks per game, and tied for ninth in rebounding average. She had 19 double-doubles, including 23 points and 20 rebounds versus Oklahoma on Jan. 25. K-State loses fellow starting post player Peyton Williams to graduation, but Lee should continue as one of the league's top players with hopes of improving on the Wildcats' 16-13 record.
3. Alissa Pili, USC Trojans, F
Season stats: 16.3 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 1.3 APG
The 6-footer from Anchorage, Alaska, used her strength to her advantage, and she also has great hands, vision, court sense and a nose for the ball. If she adds more 3-point shooting accuracy (she was 15-of-64 from long range), that will make her even more difficult to guard. She was the Pac-12's rookie of the year, joining USC legends Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson in winning that honor. She was also the only freshman on the All-Pac-12 team. During conference games, she was the league's second-leading scorer at 19.4.
4. Rickea Jackson, Mississippi State Bulldogs, F
Season stats: 15.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.2 APG
One of the most highly touted recruits to sign at Mississippi State, Jackson led the Bulldogs to a second-place finish in the SEC as the team's top scorer. She also has been a good fit in Mississippi State's defense with her ability to guard a variety of players. One of her best games of the season came in the SEC tournament semifinals versus Kentucky, with 29 points and 10 rebounds. She'll be the centerpiece player for Mississippi State again next season.
5. Zia Cooke, South Carolina Gamecocks, G
Season stats: 12.0 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.9 APG
Lauded by coach Dawn Staley for her tenacious mentality and ability to make big plays, Cooke led the Gamecocks in 3-pointers made (40) and scored in double figures in nine of her last 11 games. She was an integral part of South Carolina's defense, too. Her signature play was a leaping steal of an inbounds pass in the final seconds to preserve an 81-79 victory over Mississippi State on Jan. 20.
6. Ashley Owusu, Maryland Terrapins, G
Season stats: 12.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 5.4 APG
At 6-foot and strongly built, she was a tough matchup for most other point guards. She led the Big Ten champion Terrapins, who were projected to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, with 174 assists and was the league's freshman of the year. She was also the Big Ten tournament's most outstanding player. With Kaila Charles graduating and Shakira Austin transferring, Owusu will be Maryland's top returning scorer next season.
7. Maddy Siegrist, Villanova Wildcats, F
Season stats: 18.8 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 1.3 APG
She redshirted the 2018-19 season with a broken ankle, but she still worked on shooting while recovering. That really paid off. After rarely shooting the 3-pointer in high school, she made 62-of-191 from long range this season. She led the 18-13 Wildcats in scoring and rebounding, was the Big East's freshman of the year, and was on the All-Big East first team. She'll have a new coach next season in former Villanova player Denise Dillon, as Harry Perretta has retired after 42 seasons.
8. Aijha Blackwell, Missouri Tigers, G
Season stats: 15.0 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.7 APG
It was a tough year for the Tigers, who went 9-22 after the graduation of Sophie Cunningham. Blackwell gives them hope for next season. She averaged in the top 10 in the SEC in points and rebounds and in the top 20 in assists. She steadily became a more confident player, even against the league's best teams. She and fellow freshman Hayley Frank will be the Tigers' top returning scorers and rebounders next season.
9. Taylor Jones, Oregon State Beavers, F
Season stats: 12.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.9 BPG
She started alongside fellow freshman post player Kennedy Brown until Brown suffered a knee injury on Feb. 7. But the 6-4 Jones continued to be effective. She led the Pac-12 in blocks with 60, which was an Oregon State freshman record. Her debut in the "Civil War" at Oregon was one of her best games: 21 points on 10-of-12 shooting from the field. Jones should be an even bigger threat for the Beavers next season.
10. Charisma Osborne, UCLA Bruins, F
Season stats: 12.2 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.4 APG
She led the Bruins in 3-point field goals made with 55. She made a quick adjustment to the Pac-12 and averaged 14.2 PPG in conference games. She showed confidence in big moments from the start, and she should be one of the key players to help the Bruins contend for the Pac-12 title next season after they finished tied for second in the regular-season standings this year.