March 29, 2024 

Raven Johnson fulfills Aliyah Boston’s South Carolina prophecy

Dawn Staley's South Carolina remake works as intended

ALBANY, N.Y. — For the first time in the NCAA Tournament, Dawn Staley‘s South Carolina Gamecocks faced a significant challenge Friday evening against Indiana in the Sweet 16. The undefeated juggernaut watched its lead dwindle from 22 with 7:30 left in the third quarter all the way down to two with 1:08 to play.

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These Gamecocks are undefeated, just as last year’s version was at this point in the season. But in the 2023 Final Four, Iowa made the decision to pack the paint, South Carolina shot 4-for-20 from three, and a perfect season ended early at the hands of a Big Ten team. The 2024 Gamecocks are very different, even among its returning contributors, and this time South Carolina advanced, 79-75, because Staley built this team differently.

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That night in Dallas last season, a tearful, departing Aliyah Boston had words for guard Raven Johnson at the postgame podium.

“After the game I told Raven, this is your team,” Boston said that night. “You’ve been in the system for two years now. Next year, people are going to look to you for that leadership role.”

Friday evening in Albany, Boston’s words proved prophetic. Out of that timeout with 1:08 left, the Gamecocks fed the ball inside to Kamilla Cardoso, who was practically perfect all night, making 10-of-12 field goals. But when Indiana collapsed on her — Hoosiers coach Teri Moren said it was a deliberate “pick your poison” choice — Cardoso kicked the ball out to Johnson, who sank the three to extend South Carolina’s lead to five and all but seal the victory.

“I was open, and all I could think was, let it go,” a beaming Johnson said from the podium following the game. “I don’t want to lose. Just going from last year. Nobody can sag off me this year, and I take that very personally. And I get in the gym every day and put up reps and I think that’s where it comes from, the confidence.”

Johnson’s confidence carried her all night. This is a fundamentally different South Carolina team, 31% from three last year, second in the country this season in three-point shooting at 40% entering the game. In a critical moment with the season on the line, they were even better, 8-for-16 from deep, 50%.

And Johnson? 3-for-3. That’s 100%.

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Staley credited not just the changes in her team’s overall talents, but her entire coaching staff as well. But absolutely: the ability to shoot from deep was central to the way she planned her roster in the immediate aftermath of losing not just Boston, but numerous other WNBA players after last year.

“Well, I mean, anytime that you are trying to put together a championship team, you figure out what your weaknesses are, you figure out what people scheme, that play against you,” Staley said. “You just try to plug in players that can help us actually combat that.”

But Staley’s point in citing what the coaching staff does is evident in the numbers, too. Sure, adding Te-Hina Paopao, an accomplished three-point shooter, as a transfer has made an enormous difference, as have freshmen like MiLaysia Fulwiley.

But Paopao’s 47.6% from beyond the arc exceeds her accuracy from deep in any prior season. Bree Hall is hitting 39.3% of her threes this season, up from 35.4%, and made 2-for-5 Friday evening. And Johnson’s percentage has jumped from 24.1% last year to 35.3% in 2023-24.

And that doesn’t happen without the work and buy-in of the players, either.

“I see the work that Raven puts in every single day,” Staley said. “Every single day she gets shots up, before or after practice. They have a quota to meet each and every day. I see that before. I see that after. So I don’t think about last year. I don’t think about any of that when it comes to Raven.

“Now, it might be embedded in Raven’s head, and if it is, it’s helping her to overcome it. Some players need that in their lives. They need that type of friction in their lives to make them work a little bit harder, to meet the moment when they need to meet the moment. But certainly, I know it’s a feather in her cap knowing that she was able to knock down that shot.”

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It meant that the Gamecocks advanced to the Elite Eight, where they’ll play Oregon State on Sunday for the right to advance to the 2024 Final Four. Is that the fulfillment of Boston’s prophecy?

“I honestly don’t look at it as that,” Johnson said Friday when asked about Boston’s comments from the year before. “We play for one another, and as you could tell, Coach says, it’s like daycare. It’s really like daycare off the court. We have a bond that’s so strong and we want to see everyone succeed. And that’s the joy about this team. We just want to see everyone succeed, and we just have fun. That’s what it’s all about, having fun.”

But it’s a lot more fun when the play call — which Johnson described as “get the ball in the basket” — is successful. And South Carolina is still playing because Raven Johnson did precisely that on Friday.

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.

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