March 31, 2023 

‘The Energizers’ — Cardoso, Johnson, Amihere are the bench squad that never fails

To this crew, starting doesn't have the same allure

“A little family,” “the Energizers” and “best friends” are some of the ways that South Carolina’s first squad off the bench describes themselves. Around minute seven into every Gamecock matchup, Dawn Staley brings off one of the strongest bench squads in basketball: a combination of junior center Kamilla Cardoso, redshirt freshman point guard Raven Johnson and senior forward Laeticia Amihere.

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And although this trio comes off the bench, with Bree Hall in the mix as well, winning games is nothing new to them. When Staley starts rotating players, she adds a crew with height, ball-handling, and experience, a luxury very few teams could dream of.

“[In practice] when we have to go against each other, it’s not very often that they don’t win versus the starters,” Dawn said of her bench squad. “They just play with a different type of energy.”

Not their first rodeo

“The Energizers,” as Cardoso calls them, are aptly named, bringing in a new echelon of energy to their team, pushing the ball and running the lane. And after already having to spend seven minutes guarding Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke, they catch opponents off guard with their game in transition.

“They just bring a lot of energy. You know, the pace definitely picks up when they get in,” starting point guard Kierra Fletcher told The Next. “Everyone has said it this whole season Raven was like this unparalleled connection. Raven always knows where Kamilla’s at, Kamilla can make catches that no one else in the country can make, she’s so dynamic at her height. She moves so well. And then [Lae]Tic[ia], I mean, she can play one through five. … they could easily start.”

Johnson and Cardoso’s connection started far before they joined the Gamecocks. The two began playing together in AAU, on FBC Hunt, soon after Cardoso moved to Chattanooga, Tenn. from Brazil at age 15 and Johnson was still in middle school.

And you can tell this isn’t the two’s first rodeo. The center and guard are always in-sync on the court, and when Fletcher went down for the SEC Tournament Championship, and Staley put the freshman point guard in the starting lineup, dissapointment arose.

“At the SEC Championship, I kept saying, ‘No I don’t want to start because Kamilla, she’s my roll-dog. She bails me out of a lot of things,’” Johnson told The Next.

Whenever the two are on the court, Johnson immediately finds Cardoso in the post and, with her 6’7 frame and Johnson’s “fearless” passing, it leads to serious offensive production. And because the two have played together so long, Johnson always “knows where she is and she knows where I am.” This connection, and where it lies on the opponent’s scout, is where Amihere enters.

“We call each other a little family because we’re extremely close off the court as well. We do everything together and we just have that great bond,” Amihere told The Next. “Most people know that Raven is going to be looking for Kamilla, so [I] kind of offset it a little bit and [give] them a third option and now you have to look at two people at the same time.”

Although Amihere hasn’t been playing with her bench squad for as long as the other two, her presence has been strategically vital, spreading the opponent’s scout thin by creating multiple outlets for Johnson.

And the Energizer’s bond on the court is only possible because of what they have off the hardwood. Cardoso and Johnson are roommates, and the three of them are inseparable. Amihere calls them her “best friends.”

“We basically do everything together,” Cardoso said to The Next. “We walk to practice together. We have classes together. … We’re super close to each other.”

And although what makes The Energizers great is when they play together, their individual game is what got them here:

Kamilla Cardoso (10) celebrates in the quarterfinals of the 2023 Women’s SEC Basketball Tournament in Greenville, SC. on Wednesday, March 4. (Photo credit: Elaina Eichorn / SEC Photographer)

Kamilla Cardoso

Anywhere in the women’s game it’s rare to bring a 6’7 player off your bench, and in the college game it almost feels unfair.

“I dare anybody in this room trying to guard Cardoso. Anybody want a piece of that? That’s what I thought,” Arkansas head coach Mike Neighbors griped to reporters their SEC Tournament loss.

The SEC 6th Player of the Year grew up in Montes Claros, Brazil, where she started to sprout. Her volleyball coach told her she should hoop, and at age seven she followed in her sister’s footsteps picking up a basketball. But now Cardoso eclipses her sister, who’s just 6’3.

But her Brazilian roots remain very important. This summer, she competed for her country, receiving a 2022 FIBA South America Championships gold medal and tournament MVP.

“People don’t really care about basketball that much [in Brazil] because our big sport is soccer. So it just means a lot for me. I feel like I inspired a lot of little girls,” Cardoso told The Next.

And when she came to Tennessee for high school and met Johnson, she was ranked No. 5 on the 2020 HoopGurlz rankings, behind All-Americans Paige Bueckers, Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark. Cardoso turned down the Gamecocks in her initial recruiting period, instead heading north to Syracuse.

But after a year she joined Staley’s program, and her growth has been exponential. In just 18.5 minutes per game, Cardoso averages 9.7 ppg and 8.4 rpg. She’s tremendous on the glass and growing her shooting range and confidence at her teammates’ demand. But so much of her growth has come in the non-tangible sense — she’s learned how to use her body to raise her physicality, stay out of foul trouble, get chase-down blocks and best exploit her size mismatch. Cooke says that when Cardoso’s having a good night “there’s nobody that could beat us.”

Staley commends Cardoso’s growth, particularly this year after international play, and calls Cardoso a true “competitor,” despite the smiles on the court. But as she approaches her senior season, Staley has a high ceiling for future starter.

“I want Kamilla to be dominant…Not just an in-the-paint scorer; I want her to be able to shoot 15-footers. I want her to be able to shoot some threes. Not become Jump Shot Judy, but to protect what she does best,” Staley told reporters. “It’s just in a game she’s gets a little frightened shooting it. I think once that happens, we’ll see a more dominant Kamilla.”

And as Cardoso’s skillset grows, so will the Gamecock dominance.

Raven Johnson (25) shoots as South Carolina takes on Tennessee during the finals of the 2023 Southeastern Conference Women’s Basketball Championship at Bon Secours Wellness Arena on Sunday, March 5, 2023 in Greenville, South Carolina. (Photo credit: SEC)

Raven Johnson

“Raven is unafraid. She is unafraid of the moment. I think it’s a gift and a curse. She treats every moment the same way, whether it’s a 30-point game or a 10-point game or 2-point game. Sometimes that’s scary as a coach, but we learned to live with it,” Staley assessed to media.

Johnson sat out last season due to a knee injury, so she’s considered a freshman, but has been around the team and system for longer. Now an All-SEC Freshman Team member, Johnson is no stranger to hype. Ranked No. 2 in the 2021 HoopGurlz rankings, Johnson is an elite ball handler with the maturity of a much older player. Her court vision is second to none, and although Staley says some of her passes are “scary,” with Cardoso and her other teammates on the other end of the floor, she’s safe.

“They run for Raven. They get down the floor because they know they have opportunities to get some quick buckets. But the strength of Raven’s game is in transition, pushing the ball and getting her teammates open looks.”

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Coming into the season, Staley wasn’t sure if she would start Johnson or Fletcher, and after Johnson started the first two games, the more experienced Fletcher took over the starting role. But Johnson never seemed phased, even happy she got more time on the floor with Cardoso, and her teammates cite her energy and disposition as a game changer in the locker room.

She brings a level of confidence to the court, explaining to The Next that over the season her confidence and game have grown under the tutelage of older players like “The Freshies” and Fletcher. Like Cardoso, the ceiling is high for Johnson, particularly when Fletcher graduates after this season.

Laeticia Amihere (15) shoots in Game 11 South Carolina vs Mississippi 2023 Women’s SEC Basketball Tournament in Greenville, SC. on Wednesday March 4. (Photo credit: Elaina Eichorn / SEC)

Laeticia Amihere

Hailing from Ontario, Amihere is the Canadian Canon. Over her four years, the 6’4 forward has exemplified sacrifice. She graduated high school early, coming to Columbia to rehab an injury with the team, and although she’s only started four games in her four-year career, she never complains.

“We take great pride in that,” Amihere explained about coming off the bench. “Today, I didn’t have a great game, but the fact that we’re still able to win by 20-plus by me not having a great game — and other games one of the starters may not have a great game — but we’re still able to win by 20. It just takes the pressure off yourself that you can rely on your team.”

For Amihere, service and faith is a vital part of her life; she has staged many community and international service projects. And although she might not start on her college team, she’s already played with the Canadian Senior Women’s National Team and become the first Canadian woman to dunk in a game, a record she set at just 15 years old.

On the court, Amihere is explosive and versatile, with a high basketball IQ that helps her read opponents and lead her team. Amihere says that it’s challenging for opponents to scout her because she’s so versatile. This season she averages 7.1 ppg and 3.3 rpg in less than 16 minutes.

“I mean, she is the most versatile player I have ever had. She can play 1-5. She welcomes all the roles she is given,” Staley said after their SEC Tournament win over Mississippi. “We knew coming into the game — she didn’t play much the first time we played Ole Miss this year and it was a coach’s decision. But her response was, I’m going to make you play me.”

And at the SEC Tournament, Amihere had a breakout weekend, averaging 16.5 ppg in the first two matchups, and when she wasn’t named to the All-Tournament team, Boston gave her her own All-Tournament trophy. And Staley says that she’s ready for the WNBA; she’s experienced and knows how to play as a starter or first, second, third or fourth off the bench.

Amihere is in her senior season currently getting a Master’s. Along with her other formidable “Freshies,” she is likely to jump to the WNBA or overseas.

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The difference makers

South Carolina has the best bench in the country, and this Energizer squad leads them to victory. They break people down with their skill, experience and size in a way that is nearly impossible to overcome. However, the Gamecocks’ win over Maryland was one of the few times the bench squad struggled, and they played reduced minutes in the first half. They came back to dominate the second half, though.

“I didn’t think [South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley] played her bench the amount of minutes that she typically does. But still when you’re bringing off 6’7 and 6’3 and another point guard… Clearly you saw that when it impacted us with our foul trouble that we didn’t have that kind of depth,” Maryland head coach Brenda Freese told reporters. “It’s a big reason obviously why they’re undefeated and why they’re the defending national champions.”

Others have described the bench as “demoralizing,” “breaks opponents” and more. For South Carolina they are the difference makers.

The Energizers will tip off Friday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN in Dallas at the Final Four against offensive powerhouse Iowa. And although the Gamecocks have an all-time starting crew, they’ll need their bench to be firing on all cylinders to get the win.

After Dallas, it’s unclear if Amihere will depart for the draft, but Cardoso told The Next she plans to stay and Johnson is likely to do the same.

“Even Raven will be on the bench and she’s like, ‘The team in the next couple years is gonna look great,’” Boston told reporters. “She keeps saying that, and I think that’s important because they’re not thinking ‘Oh my gosh, what are we gonna do without them?’ They see themselves playing on the court.”

And maybe Johnson will appreciate the start more if her best friend Cardoso is by her side.

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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