The touching story behind opponents’ hug amid Final Four elation, heartbreak

Henry Bushnell
·4-min read

The shot rimmed out. Hands snapped to heads. South Carolina's Aliyah Boston sank to the floor. And after the most dramatic of Final Four finishes, after inches separated heroism and heartbreak, Stanford players bounded toward their bench. They leapt into one another’s arms. Haley Jones, who’d hit the game-winning jumper, celebrated as jubilantly as anyone.

Then she looked across the court, and paused.

A few dozen feet away, she saw a dear friend. A friend she communicates with almost daily. A friend she’s traveled with, balled with, won a world championship with. A friend who shares her sarcastic, dry sense of humor. A friend she’d texted with just yesterday.

She saw Aliyah Boston, and Boston was distraught. Tears were streaming down her face.

So Jones and teammate Fran Belibi interrupted their celebrations. They weren’t supposed to cross midcourt and mingle with opponents. They sought out a team administrator for an exemption. “Can we go see our friend?” they asked.

They got permission, and sprinted across the floor. Boston fell into their arms. They embraced, and held one another for a few moments.

“So proud of you,” Jones told Boston. “I love you. Keep your head up.”

Boston, with her left arm clutching Jones, and her right arm pulling in Belibi, told them: “Go win the natty now."

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“And right after the game, we're texting each other,” Jones told Yahoo Sports two hours later. “I think that those are the best relationships. Where you're able to compete against your friends, but no matter the win or the loss, nothing changes that relationship.”

The Haley Jones-Aliyah Boston friendship

Jones, Boston and Belibi were born several months apart in 2001 — but thousands of miles apart, separated by an ocean. Boston came to the States from the U.S. Virgin Islands. She starred at a Massachusetts prep school, while Belibi made headlines in Colorado, while Jones grew into an All-American out in the Bay Area.

In 2017, as 15-year-olds, USA Basketball brought them together. Boston and Belibi made the U.S. team that won the FIBA Under-16 World Cup. Jones was named an alternate, and missed out.

But the three girls were drawn to one another. They’d roast one another, Jones said, but all in good fun. The following summer, all three made the national team that traveled to Belarus for the Under-17 World Cup. They won it — along with two other future teammates who starred Friday night — and have stayed close ever since.

They now spend most of their time busy, and 2,400 miles apart. But their group chat stays active. They FaceTime when they have free time on weekends. They congratulate one another on strong performances and support one another after shaky ones.

Jones said they’d been in touch throughout the NCAA tournament. But once they clinched a Final Four showdown against each other?

“Oh, barely spoke,” Jones said with a laugh.

They did text on Thursday. In Stanford practice that day, Belibi had been tasked with mimicking Boston on the scout team.

I got to live out my dream and be you, Belibi texted afterward.

I got to live out my dream and block your shot, Jones followed, jokingly.

“But it was business today,” Jones said.

South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston, center, gets a hug from Stanford forward Francesca Belibi, left, and guard Haley Jones, right, after a women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament semifinal game Friday, April 2, 2021, at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Stanford won 65-66. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston, center, gets a hug from Stanford forward Francesca Belibi, left, and guard Haley Jones, right, after a women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament semifinal game Friday, April 2, 2021, at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Stanford won 65-66. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

'You never want to see your friend hurting'

For two hours in San Antonio on Friday evening, two of the “best friends” were two of the three best players on a Final Four court.

Boston pulled down 16 rebounds and blocked four shots despite foul trouble.

Jones scored 24 points on only 14 shots. Her clutch jumper with 32 seconds remaining gave Stanford a 66-65 lead.

The game, though, hung on a frantic final possession. South Carolina got a steal. Boston flipped the ball to Brea Beal. Beal drove to the rim, and missed a contested layup. Boston towered above Cardinal players for the rebound. She pushed the ball delicately back toward the hoop. It left her hand with 0.3 seconds on the clock.

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It didn’t go in, and that crushed Boston. She turned around, crouched, and pressed her palms into the hardwood. Disbelief and agony crumpled her face.

Those are the emotions that Jones and Belibi saw, the emotions that pulled them toward their friend, the emotions that compelled them to check in on Boston via text afterward.

They also knew she would’ve done the same for them.

“We have so much love for each other,” Jones said. “And so much respect. … She had a great game, we matched each other's energy tonight. And so after the game, it was just respect and love for her. You never want to see your friend hurting.”

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