April 10, 2024 

Final Four notebook: Johnson shines with South Carolina, Kate Martin reflects and more

A look back at the Final Four, featuring Tessa Johnson's triumphs, Kate Martin's reflections, and Caitlin Clark's lasting impact

CLEVELAND – Tessa Johnson was locked and loaded against Iowa in the national championship game. Finishing with a career-high 19 points, Johnson made the difference offensively as South Carolina concluded a perfect season with an 87-75 victory over Iowa at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse before an electric sellout crowd Sunday.

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What was truly remarkable about Johnson’s offensive outburst was her unwavering commitment to defense. She was benched for a stretch during South Carolina’s opening game against Notre Dame for not properly responding to a screen and missing an assignment. From that moment on, Johnson learned quickly about how to earn playing time.

When asked about the key to winning the championship the day before playing North Carolina State, she responded without hesitation – “defense” – emphasizing its importance. But she also humorously added, “If I hit my shots too.” This playful remark only underscored her deep understanding of the game and her dedication to every aspect of it.

Johnson recognized by fellow Gamecocks

“I’m going to give Tessa Johnson her flowers,” South Carolina sophomore guard Raven Johnson said. “When you talk about a freshman, it’s just the stuff that she does. She’s always ready for the moment. When her number is called, she’s always ready. Every shot she puts up, it goes in. It’s just what Tessa does. She takes pride in defense. If you talk to her, she’s like a sponge. She gets in the gym, and she works on her shot every day. She wants to learn.”

And in a series of shining moments during the women’s tournament final, Johnson’s 3-pointers stick out as some of the brightest stars. Her majestic performance helped South Carolina enjoy a 37-0 advantage in bench points. MiLaysia Fulwiley finished with nine points, meaning the Gamecock freshmen combined for 28 points on 11-of-21 shooting. After missing her first two shots, Johnson made seven of her last nine shot attempts, including six consecutive shots in the second and third quarters and three 3-pointers.

Johnson made all three of her shots in the second quarter for seven points. In the third quarter, she made both of her 3-pointers for six points. She made a 3-pointer during an 8-0 South Carolina third quarter burst after Iowa closed to within, 57-55, with 4:44 remaining. Her second 3-pointer with 1:11 left in the third quarter gave South Carolina a 68-57 lead.

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“Tessa was due for a breakout game,” South Carolina senior guard Te-Hina Paopao said. “What to do better than on a national stage? She’s trusted her process here. She’s trusted her journey. And for her to do that on such a big stage. Her confidence has grown so much. I’m just really excited for her future. She’s going to be a great Gamecock. She’s got a bright future ahead of her. But she has to keep trusting the process and being who she is. She’s just an amazing little girl.”

During the tournament, Johnson, who broke her leg as a high school sophomore, showcased her offensive skills. The 2023 Gatorade Minnesota Player of the Year scored double-digits in three of South Carolina’s six games. She scored 15 points against Oregon State to win the Albany One regional and 11 points in a second round win over North Carolina. Johnson’s previous career best was 16 points against Morgan State.

Johnson entered the NCAA Tournament averaging 5.9 points but increased her scoring average to 10.1 points in the Gamecocks’ run to the championship. This was quite the turnaround after not scoring in the Gamecocks’ first round triumph over Presbyterian. A multi-level scorer, Johnson, who led South Carolina in scoring for the first time this season against Oregon State, averaged 11 points per contest in the two wins in Albany.  

For South Carolina, it was a team effort

“I am so happy that we were able to bring everything together,” Fulwiley said. “It might look like we’re this great team, but we didn’t start this way. We had to put in a lot of work to get here. We had a lot of newcomers like me, Tessa, and Te-Hina. Everything was new for us. I was in high school last year and didn’t know everything was this hard. Really, I just came here with the mentality to win. I am blessed that I came here and proud of this team.”

South Carolina’s balance was spread throughout the game, enabling it to overcome a pair of early 10-0 and 20-9 deficits. Fulwiley scored seven points in the first quarter for the Gamecocks. Johnson and Kamilla Cardoso each scored the same amount in the second quarter. Johnson may have led South Carolina with six points in the third quarter, but Chloe Kitts and Bree Hall combined to score six of the Gamecock’s first eight points in the third. In the last quarter, eight South Carolina players scored, led by four points each from Cardoso and Johnson. Cardoso collected seven of her 17 rebounds in the fourth quarter.

Dayton native Bree Hall scored all seven of her points in the second half for South Carolina. (Photo credit: Dominic Allegra, The Next)

Hall, a Dayton native, capped a perfect homecoming with a championship in her home state. After being whistled for two early fouls, Hall adjusted and made key contributions during the second half by scoring all seven of her points.

“It’s awesome and incredible feeling,” Hall said after being asked what it means to be part of South Carolina’s first undefeated team. “I had happy tears, and I am so blessed to be part of something special. Everybody was locked in before the game.”

Additional South Carolina tournament notes

Raven Johnson had 17 steals after registering four against Iowa during the NCAA tournament. Ashlyn Watkins had one block in the game, giving her 91 for the season. South Carolina had a 29-point quarter in each game of the Final Four. The Gamecocks scored 29 points in the third quarter against North Carolina State. South Carolina’s bench scored at least 30 points in five of its six NCAA Tournament games. The Gamecocks are 109-3 over the last three years. South Carolina out-rebounded its Final Four opponents, 97-61.

Gyamfi’s meaningful motivation

Des Moines native Jada Gyamfi has enjoyed a unique view of the frenzy surrounding her teammate and friend, Caitlin Clark. Gyamfi has had a front-row seat as a reserve guard to witness Clark’s record-breaking excellence throughout this season. There were times when even she was in awe of Clark’s brilliance during the season.

“I’ve known her since I was in middle school, maybe elementary school, because we grew up in the same area,” Gyamfi said of Clark. “I’ve always been kind of a fan of hers. She’s an outstanding basketball player but her personality off the court is why I love her. It has nothing to do with her basketball stuff, but she’s just a normal, goofy girl, like the rest of us. She’s amazing.”

Iowa was the only school Gyamfi wanted to attend because she grew up as a huge Hawkeye fan. The Hawkeyes made an offer to the Johnston (Iowa) High School product after her sophomore season. Gyamfi, who felt at home during her campus visit, is also important to the team. She’s played in 20 games this season for the Hawkeyes.

“I haven’t regretted my decision since being here,” Gyamfi said. “This journey has been a lot different for me compared to some of the other girls, but it’s been amazing to be a part of the ride. It’s amazing to see how far we come, and do it with my best friends.”

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Gyafmi knows her career will end once she leaves Iowa. An elementary education major, Gyamfi is excited to make an impact in the classroom. The youngest of four children, she just turned 20 last month. She also has several meaningful tattoos that are significant to her and bring her of inspiration daily.

The Roman numeral four is on her wrist because she’s the fourth child. She has the name of Billy Joel’s “Vienna” tattooed on her arm, which is a meaningful song she listens to when she needs some light and motivation. Always focused on her family, she also has a matching tattoo with her sister. Gyamfi’s says, “No Matter Where,” and her sister’s reads, “No Matter When.”

On the back of her arm are the lyrics by Taylor Swift “To Live for the Hope of It All.” These lyrics describe Gyamfi’s positive personality – she looks for the best in each situation while keeping her eyes focused ahead. On Gyamfi’s rib is a tattoo of the words “Love You” written in her late grandfather’s handwriting, and a carnation drawn by her grandmother.

“They’re all personal and pretty special,” Gyamfi said.

Kate Martin reflects

Kate Martin scored Iowa’s first five points of the national championship and ended her career with 1,288 points. (Photo credit: Dominic Allegra, The Next)

Kate Martin has been the heart and soul of the Hawkeye program. She scored 16 points, including the first five points of the national championship game, for the 30th time this season. Like everybody in an Iowa uniform, Martin knows she was part of a transformative year for Iowa and women’s basketball. While sad about the outcome against South Carolina, she appreciated the opportunity to be part of this season and all the record ratings.

Martin finished her memorable career with 1,288 points in 162 games. She helped Iowa play in two national championship games and win two Big Ten tournament championships. She also assisted the Hawkeyes in winning 65 games over the last two years, the best stretch in program history.

“Once I’m older and can reflect on this time, I think I’ll appreciate it way more,” Martin said. “Seeing little girls and boys look up to us, wanting our autograph and enjoying watching women’s basketball is so cool and special. I idolized Iowa women’s basketball, but it wasn’t like it is now. It’s just super cool to be a part of that. I think forever, we’ll be known like I said, for our legacy as a team that’s really kind of changed women’s basketball in a sense … I feel super grateful.”

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Caitlin’s counter

It seems every time Clark played, she added or broke a record. The championship game was no different. Her 18 points in the first quarter against South Carolina was a record for a national championship contest. She scored 11 points during a 67-second stretch and tallied 13 straight Iowa points in the first quarter. With her 3-pointer at the 20-second mark of the third quarter over Cardoso, Clark broke Chamique Holdsclaw’s career NCAA tournament scoring record of 479 points. Clark finished her career with 492 tournament points in 17 games.

As she walked to the locker room following the game, Clark gave the heart symbol with her hands to the Iowa fans. She ended her phenomenal career with 3,951 points, 1,144 assists and 990 rebounds. She’s the first Division I player to record 3,700+ points, 1,000+ assists, and 900+ rebounds in a career.

“She has raised the excitement of our sport,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said about Clark. “There’s no doubt. Just because she does things differently than anybody else can do. Plus, she has all the intangibles. She’s a great student. She’s a great role model. She does everything – she loves being that role model. When she came in as a freshman and said, ‘we’re going to the Final Four,’ many people laughed at her and maybe even laughed at her for coming to Iowa, quite honestly. But we believed, and she got everybody else in that locker room to believe. And that is not an easy thing to do.”

Written by Rob Knox

Rob Knox is an award-winning professional and a member of the Lincoln (Pa.) Athletics Hall of Fame. In addition to having work published in SLAM magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Knox enjoyed a distinguished career as an athletics communicator for Lincoln, Kutztown, Coppin State, Towson, and UNC Greensboro. He also worked at ESPN and for the Delaware County Daily Times. Recently, Knox was honored by CSC with the Mary Jo Haverbeck Trailblazer Award and the NCAA with its Champion of Diversity award. Named a HBCU Legend by SI.com, Knox is a graduate of Lincoln University and a past president of the College Sports Communicators, formerly CoSIDA.

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