April 7, 2024 

South Carolina finishes perfect season with a flourish

A year after falling to Iowa in the Final Four, South Carolina beat them to secure both the NCAA championship and a perfect season

CLEVELAND – Perfection. It doesn’t get much better than that for the South Carolina women’s basketball team.

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Legendary head coach Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks reserved a rarified place in the pantheon of South Carolina women’s basketball excellence with an 87-75 victory over Iowa in the national championship game at sold-out Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse Sunday. The game exceeded the hype, and the win also allowed South Carolina to complete an undefeated season, as the Gamecocks finished the year 38-0.

“I’m super excited to share this moment with our team,” Staley said. “They are incredible human beings and young people who trusted, believed, and figured out a way to help each other, learn and grow, and ultimately become champions. You carry the burden of every one of your players, all the coaches and staff members who put so much into our team. And it’s a heavy load to be undefeated to finish the job.”

By completing their first perfect season and claiming their third national championship in program history, the Gamecocks avenged their lone loss from last season by completing their self-proclaimed “revenge tour.” It began with them being ranked sixth in the Associated Press poll after losing five players to the WNBA last season.

As Staley ascended the net to clip the final strands, the arena filled with the sounds of Boyz II Men’s “Motown Philly” in a tribute to her north Philadelphia roots. Staley, who had accomplished everything since taking over the Gamecock program except complete a perfect season, finally achieved this milestone. Her leadership and the team’s collective effort had brought them to the pinnacle of glory.

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South Carolina is the 10th undefeated national champion in NCAA women’s history. Their third title ties them with Baylor and Stanford for the third-most, behind UConn (11) and Tennessee (eight).

Staley, who cried when the postgame buzzer sounded, shared a heartfelt embrace with sophomore guard Raven Johnson on the championship podium. They both danced with each other, a symbol of relief and their shared joy and camaraderie.

South Carolina players stormed the court, their unity evident in the flood of delightful delirium of hugging, jumping, dancing and high-fiving. Their return to glory was not just an individual achievement, but a collective triumph.

It seemed only appropriate that a smiling Johnson was the first Gamecock to cut the net down, as she took last year’s setback to Iowa to heart. That loss hurt her, and it made her think about quitting the sport she loved. Everybody remembers how Iowa senior Caitlin Clark dismissively waved off Johnson during one defensive sequence to let everybody know she didn’t believe she was an offensive threat.

It was an image seared forever in Johnson’s head. And it motivated her all season. Johnson worked harder on improving her 3-point shooting, which helped her double her scoring average from last year. She also shot a career-best 45.2 percent this season and was third in the Southeastern Conference in assists per game, which earned her All-SEC Second Team honors. None of that would’ve happened if Johnson reacted to her gut following last season’s heartbreaking loss to Iowa.

This game was personal for Johnson. All she was missing was Michael Jordan’s tablet from “The Last Dance.” “I’m so happy that I didn’t quit basketball,” said Johnson postgame with a radiant smile while wearing a white national championship T-shirt. “I’m glad that happened to me. Like God says, things happen for a reason. I’m glad I got closer to God. I‘ve grown a lot mentally and physically. I think I’m strong-minded and able to overcome adversity. If I could take anything that happened to me last year, I can handle anything in life.”

Johnson’s pre-game body language suggested that this year would be different. She stepped onto the floor with a confident strut, quickly clapping her hands, dancing to the sounds of Lil Baby’s and Drake’s “Indeed,” and using the basketball as a volleyball with teammates Bree Hall and Paopao. While she didn’t enjoy her best shooting game, Johnson got even with her tenacious defense, fierce determination fueled by urgency, and strong leadership.

Of course, beating Iowa means slowing down Clark, which is next to impossible. The Gamecocks did a great job of making her work, however, especially over the final three quarters. Johnson spent a lot of quality time sticking close to Clark.

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The defensive plan was simple but the execution was challenging. The Gamecocks tried to provide Clark with different looks throughout the game by using a variety of defenders against her. South Carolina had four members of its starting lineup take turns guarding Clark before the first media timeout.

And it didn’t help that Clark’s quick start fueled Iowa. She scored 18 points in the opening quarter on 5-of-8 shooting from the floor, including three 3-pointers that sent the pro-Iowa crowd into an early frenzy as the Hawkeyes sprinted to leads of 10-0 and 20-9. The noise was deafening. She was 5-for-20 shooting over the remainder of the game.

“For Raven, I think it was psychologically helpful to be able to play Iowa and Caitlin, to just release,” Staley said. “As a player, you want to release certain things that have held you captive. And I think the waving off in the Final Four last year held her captive. Then, for her to lock in and play Caitlin the way we needed her to play her – we knew she would get her points. We wanted her to get her points in an inefficient way. When I look at the stat sheet, it’s beautiful. It’s like if she scores – if she’s shooting 50 percent, we lose the basketball game.”

With 20 seconds remaining, Clark exited the floor for the final time to a roaring ovation as a Hawkeye at 5:10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

“I’m sad we lost this game, but I’m also so proud of myself,” Clark said. “I’m so proud of my teammates; I’m so proud of this program. There’s a lot to be proud of. But there’s going to be tears. It is sad this is all over, and this is the last time I will put on an Iowa jersey. I think I just reflected and soaked in everything that I was able to do because anybody other than me and Coach Bluder never thought this was possible. We never backed down and gave it everything we’ve got.”

With Johnson as the primary defender on Clark, the Associated Press Player of the Year was 1-of-6 shooting in the second quarter as South Carolina surged ahead. Johnson finished the first half by stripping Clark at center court and racing in for a basket that gave South Carolina a 49-46 halftime lead.

That put an extra bounce in Johnson’s step as she hopped up and down. Fueled by the adrenaline of the moment, Johnson chest-bumped her teammates and screamed as she left the floor at halftime. Johnson studied Clark relentlessly on film to prepare for the challenge of guarding her. She even spoke to her uncle to get additional pointers the day before the game.

“She’s a great player,” Johnson said. “Don’t get me wrong, it was very hard. She tired me out on offense. I was so tired and breathing so hard at halftime … I was asking, who else could guard her? But I wanted to give flowers to her. She had a terrific season, and everything she did for women’s basketball was amazing. So, hats off to her. I think she’s going to crush it at the next level.”

Fortunately for Johnson, she had a posse to handle scoring chores and take turns guarding Clark at different moments during the game.

South Carolina enjoyed its luxury of depth and size that subdued Iowa and overcame the temporary inconvenience of surrendering the first 10 points of the contest. The Gamecocks enjoyed a 51-29 rebounding advantage and an unfathomable 37-0 edge in bench points. According to NCAA postgame notes, the plus-22 rebounding margin is the fifth-best in a national championship game.

Tournament Most Outstanding Player Kamilla Cardoso postgame following South Carolina’s victory. (Photo credit by Dominic Allegra, The Next)

All nine Gamecocks who played at least 13 minutes scored at least three points, highlighted by a career-high 19 points from Tessa Johnson. The freshman guard made 7-of-11 shots from the field, including three 3-pointers. Fellow freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley electrified the Gamecocks with nine points. Her seven points in the first quarter helped South Carolina regain its equilibrium after Iowa’s fast start.

“To have a roster that goes nine, ten deep is – it’s a privilege, it really is,” Staley said. “But it has to be developed slowly and the right way. Like, there’s a lot of trust that must be built because there’s some games that some of them won’t play a whole lot, especially the people that’s coming off the bench.”

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Kamilla Cardoso, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, added 15 points and 17 rebounds for her 16th double-double of the season. Senior Te-Hina Paopao added 14 points, and sophomore Chloe Kitts finished with 11 points to pace a balanced South Carolina performance. The Gamecocks’ attack came from so many angles that Iowa had to feel like it was taking a geometry test.

Iowa displayed a reservoir of confidence after slicing a 12-point deficit during the fourth quarter to 80-75 with 4:12 remaining. The Hawkeyes tried to conjure enough momentum to complete a comeback, but the Gamecocks locked down and didn’t allow any more points. From the Iowa side, in addition to Clark, Kate Martin scored 16 points, Sydney Affolter tallied 12 points, and Hannah Stuelke finished with 11. These performances in particular displayed plenty of championship grit and resilience.

Throughout this special season, South Carolina made its mark of distinction with electric bursts of timely scoring. This created a rock-solid bond on and off the floor that enabled the Gamecocks to overcome adversity, deficits, and tests. Competing with relentless passion, poise, and patience, South Carolina enjoyed the season of their lives. During this season, they became a team and believed that anything was possible, including a perfect season. The Gamecocks savored every second of being around each other and embraced the opportunity to play the game they loved.

“I did want to see them in the national championship this year because of what happened last year,” Johnson said. “It was an apology to my teammates, coaches, and myself. And I just feel like, like I said, it was a revenge tour. And there’s no better way than to play them in the championship and beat them.

Johnson continued: “It means a lot to make history and be one of the teams to make history, especially with a young group. You guys just don’t know what this team goes through, what this team does. I’ve never seen Coach Staley cry. She would never show her emotions to us. It means a lot just to win it for her.”

Now, that’s the perfect ending.

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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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