April 6, 2024 

Kamilla Cardoso brings lightness and empathy to South Carolina’s championship quest

Bree Hall: Cardoso 'brings all of us to life'

CLEVELAND — Kamilla Cardoso supplies energy and much more for the South Carolina women’s basketball team.

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Sure, her on-court contributions such as leadership, scoring, rebounding and blocking shots matter, but her empathy, smile and benevolence are the qualities that make Cardoso stand taller than her 6’7 frame. They’re what she’ll be remembered for once she and her teammates go their separate ways in life.

Cardoso is there with an uplifting text message when teammates are feeling low. When they need a pick-me-up, she offers her infectious smile. When they are grappling with personal issues, she is their rock. When she describes sophomore Ashlyn Watkins‘ blocked shots, her face lights up. She loves her teammates.

It’s no wonder that Cardoso’s teammates want to reciprocate her kindness by sending her off as a two-time national champion. 

“Kamilla is my best friend on and off the court,” said sophomore guard Raven Johnson, who also played AAU with Cardoso in high school. “I know this will mean a lot to her. So there’s no better way of winning a national championship for her than having her leave here on a good note. She’s been very impactful to me. She does so much, and we’ve done many things together.”

6'7 South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso embraces her 5'9 teammate Raven Johnson.
Kamilla Cardoso (left) and Raven Johnson embrace during South Carolina’s national semifinal victory over NC State at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 5, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Cardoso, who declared for the WNBA Draft earlier this week, will play her final college game when undefeated South Carolina faces Iowa in a highly anticipated national championship game on Sunday at 3 p.m. on ABC. Iowa beat South Carolina last season in the Final Four.

Since joining South Carolina after her freshman season at Syracuse, Cardoso has been instrumental in the program’s remarkable 108-3 record. 

Johnson and Cardoso enjoy a special bond thanks to being teammates before and during their time at South Carolina. As roommates, they eat and get their hair done together. Everything hasn’t been easy for Cardoso, who had to learn English when she arrived in America from Montes Claros, Brazil, when she was 15 years old.

“When she first got here, she looked at all the players like we were weird,” Johnson said. “I remember walking up to her and she didn’t know anything I was saying … so I used my phone to talk to her. It was kind of weird for me because I had never done that before.”

Once she conquered the language, Cardoso focused on becoming the best player possible. Cardoso’s journey has been a testament to the power of patience and perseverance. She’s gone from averaging 5.4 points per game as a sophomore, to 9.8 as a junior, to 14.3 this season. 

“Keep chasing your dreams,” Cardoso said in the locker room following Friday’s victory. “Look where I am right now. Believe in yourself and trust the process. Just working so hard since this summer, I’m just proud of where we are right now as a team.”

South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso extends her arm down to low-five a teammate.
South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso (10) high-fives a teammate during a Final Four game against NC State at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 5, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

This season alone, the USBWA and John Wooden All-America selection has 15 double-doubles following her 22 points and 11 rebounds in South Carolina’s national semifinal victory over NC State on Friday night. In addition to being named the Most Outstanding Player of the Albany 1 Regional in the NCAA Tournament, Cardoso was also named the WBCA and SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

She’s already a winner on the court, but her biggest victories are in how she makes her teammates feel and treats others. 

“She’s our beautiful Brazilian girl,” South Carolina senior guard Te-Hina Paopao said during Saturday’s press conference. “She’s just amazing to be around. She’s light. She’s always funny, always energetic, always smiling. She’s just a loving person. She’s an amazing person, and I’m fortunate to have someone like her in my corner and someone on our team. She keeps everything light but also tells us to lock in.”

During the Gamecocks’ pregame routine before their game against NC State, as a sellout crowd filed into the arena, Cardoso was having fun, dancing, playing soccer and trying to hit the giant overhead scoreboard with the ball. You would never know the stakes of what South Carolina was playing for. It’s how she’s wired; her positive vibes help her teammates relax.

“People don’t understand how sweet of a girl she is,” South Carolina junior guard Bree Hall said. “She’s been there for me when I was down and sent a nice message or came to me and was like, ‘You’re tough, you’re a warrior, and you got this.’ She’s so fun to be around and brings all of us to life. She’s a great person.”

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley is confident that Cardoso’s best basketball is ahead of her in the WNBA, especially after watching former Gamecocks A’ja Wilson and Aliyah Boston blossom professionally. She has seen Cardoso become a better practice player and stronger preparer. Cardoso also watches film with associate head coach Lisa Boyer to look for subtleties that can enhance her game. That’s one reason why Staley wasn’t surprised when Cardoso told her this week that she was planning to turn pro. 

If Cardoso’s last three NCAA Tournament games are any indication, she’s ready. 

Showcasing agile footwork, a soft touch around the rim and a willingness to be aggressive, Cardoso tied her career high of 22 points twice in the last three games, against Indiana and NC State. Against the Wolfpack, she scored 12 points in the second quarter. That tied Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu for the fifth-most points in a quarter in a national semifinal, according to the NCAA.

“Greatness is a process,” Staley said. “And she’s still very much in, I think, in the beginning stages of her greatness. She is more aware and plays with a desire to win. She was more willing to do all those things that created an advantage for her on the floor. I think you’ll see her play a lot better when she’s with pro players.”

Understandably, Cardoso’s teammates want to win the national championship for her, but she has added motivation. She wants to repay Staley for her tremendous impact on her career. 

“She deserves this,” Cardoso said about Staley. “I mean, she’s an inspiration for us. She works hard every single day to prepare us for moments like this. She prepares us for our basketball lives and our lives outside of basketball. So we want to do it for her because it’s like giving her back what she does for us.”

That perfectly encapsulates Cardoso’s legacy, as her mindset revolves around others even as she chases greatness.

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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