April 5, 2024 

Getting defensive has made all the difference for South Carolina freshman Tessa Johnson

The freshman guard is elevating her game, and finding her place with the Gamecocks in the process

CLEVELAND — Tessa Johnson had an epiphany during her first collegiate contest against Notre Dame in Paris following a wait-and-see defensive approach. The South Carolina freshman guard waited for the screens to arrive so she could defend them. Then she watched as her opponent scored because she didn’t adjust properly. 

Continue reading with a subscription to The Next

Get unlimited access to women’s basketball coverage and help support our hardworking staff of writers, editors, and photographers by subscribing today.

Join today

“I didn’t know what to expect because it was my first college game,” Johnson told The Next in the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse locker room Thursday afternoon. “I realized when I didn’t get over the screens on shooters, I sat for a good amount of time, and I was like, well, I don’t want to do that again. So, if I wanted more minutes, I needed to lock in on defense and have that mentality to stay locked in during the entire possession.”

Get 24/7 soccer coverage with The Equalizer

The Next is partnering with The Equalizer to bring more women’s sports stories to your inbox. Subscribers to The Next receive 50% off their subscription to The Equalizer for 24/7 coverage of women’s soccer.

South Carolina head coach and newly minted AP Coach of the Year Dawn Staley chuckled at the memory when it came up during a media interview session outside of her team’s commodious locker room. 

Staley says she was impressed by Johnson’s desire to become a dependable defender. Her performances this season have not only contributed to the Gamecocks leading the nation in field goal percentage defense (32.1) and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) in points allowed per game (56.0), but also instilled a sense of pride in the team’s defensive prowess.

“I think the biggest thing for her was turning the page,” Staley said. “In high school, you can sulk and still make plays. At this level, you can’t sulk because if you do, somebody is playmaking on the other end and making you pay for it. Her mentality is different now, and her confidence regarding scoring is out of the roof. I’ve been more impressed with her ability to defend and stick her nose in there and guard no matter who’s she guarding.”

Minnesota made, South Carolina grown

An Albertville, Minnesota native and one of eight McDonald’s All-Americans on South Carolina’s roster, Tessa Johnson learned how to handle aversity early in her high school career. She broke her femur during her sophomore year, but returned stronger and more committed than ever.

Now, the 2023 Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year is in a position she has dreamed about since shooting baskets in her snowy driveway with her older sister, Rae, and father. Rae played at Iowa State, and Johnson says she grew up wanting to be just like her.

Your business can reach over 3 million women’s sports fans every single month!

Here at The Next and The IX, our audience is a collection of the smartest, most passionate women’s sports fans in the world. If your business has a mission to serve these fans, reach out to our team at editors@thenexthoops.com to discuss ways to work together.

Of course, Johnson won’t be the only Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year in this Final Four. Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers is a three-time winner of that prestigious distinction. Johnson also grew up watching Bueckers operate and dominate.

“There’s a lot of great players that came out of Minnesota,” a smiling Johnson said. “The fact that I’m here now and can help is amazing, especially as a freshman, which is even cooler. I haven’t been thinking about offense. After my defense, the offense comes to me because we have so many keys on our team that opportunities to score just come to me at the right time.”

Even though Tessa Johnson (right with ball) is also a capable offensive threat for South Carolina, she has focused on become a defensive dynamo. (Photo by Mackenzie Harris/SEC)

Last season, Johnson couldn’t remember where she was watching South Carolina lose to Iowa in the national semifinals. She recalled being in agony because she couldn’t help the Gamecocks quite yet. Her only contribution was screaming at the LED screen and cheering whenever South Carolina succeeded. 

When she arrived in Columbia, Johnson was committed to making an impact for the Gamecocks. Surrounded by other great scorers, she knew the only way to stay on the floor was through her defensive determination and intensity.

Johnson got plenty of experience during practices, enhancing her focus, footwork, positioning, and the subtle nuances needed to excel on the defensive end of the floor. Handling feedback and having a growth mindset has also helped Johnson.

“If I mess up and Coach [Staley] tells me that I need to do this or something different, I must be willing to do that and pay attention,” Johnson told The Next. “I love learning, and Coach is very detailed in her instructions.”

Order ‘Rare Gems’ and save 30%

Howard Megdal, founder and editor of The Next and The IX, released his next book on May 7, 2024. This deeply reported story follows four connected generations of women’s basketball pioneers, from Elvera “Peps” Neuman to Cheryl Reeve and from Lindsay Whalen to Sylvia Fowles and Paige Bueckers.

If you enjoy his coverage of women’s basketball every Wednesday at The IX, you will love “Rare Gems: How Four Generations of Women Paved the Way for the WNBA.” Click the link below and enter MEGDAL30 at checkout.

Eventually, Johnson became part of South Carolina’s bench brigade, which averages an NCAA Tournament-best 38.8 points per game and has outscored its opponents by 32.8 points per game. In addition to grabbing a career-best seven rebounds against Maryland on Nov. 12 and handing out a career-high five assists against Morgan State on Dec. 6, Johnson is one of nine Gamecocks averaging at least 15 minutes per game.

Final Four ready

While there are many reasons why the unbeaten and No. 1 ranked Gamecocks are in the Final Four for the fourth consecutive season, there’s no denying the development Tessa Johnson has had is somewhere on that list.

Johnson entered the NCAA Tournament averaging 5.9 points but has increased her scoring average to 8.3 points in the Gamecocks’ during their run to the Final Four. 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.

“I am proud of her growth,” South Carolina senior guard Ta-Hina Paopao said. “Tess has become reliable for us. We trust her. She’s not afraid to shoot or guard the other team’s best player. I am just excited for her future.”

Even with her scoring ability, Johnson knows South Carolina’s key to success in Friday’s first national semifinal against NC State:

“Defense,” Johnson said without hesitation.

The Next, a 24/7/365 women’s basketball newsroom

The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited and photographed by our young, diverse staff and dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives and projections about the game we love.

The Gamecocks have held three of their opponents to under 60 points during the NCAA tournament. Johnson’s defensive tenacity will be huge in slowing down the Wolfpack’s talented core of guards, which includes former Gamecock Saniya Rivers, a member of South Carolina’s 2022 national championship team.

More importantly, though, Johnson has earned the trust of her teammates. They know how hard she’s worked throughout the season to help place South Carolina in a position to win its third national championship under Staley. Her personality, and her game, are seamlessly blending in with the Gamecocks.

“She’s hilarious, goofy, and very funny,” South Carolina junior guard Bree Hall said during a press conference. “She brings energy and liveliness to the locker room. Tess’s growth has been tremendous. Her defense improved a lot from the beginning of the season, and just her confidence overall has grown, and you can see it on the court.”

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.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.