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June 14, 2024

South Carolina used last year’s failure to inspire this season’s women’s March Madness run

South Carolina used last year’s failure to inspire this season’s women’s March Madness run

ALBANY — With under a minute left in a two-point game on Friday night — with an Elite Eight berth on the line — Indiana had suddenly pushed undefeated No. 1 South Carolina to the brink in the fourth quarter to overcome a 17-point halftime deficit. But South Carolina’s head coach Dawn Staley had one thing on her mind: Raven Johnson.

She’d seen the look in Johnson’s eyes in those last few minutes as the lead shrunk. It was a look she had seen before from her players throughout the season.

“I knew she wasn’t going to let us lose,” Staley said. “I knew she was going to do something.”

That something ended up being a few things. The first was a midrange jumper in the lane to put the Gamecocks up 72-65, the second was a three-pointer off of a post kickout from Kamilla Cardoso to push the lead back to five points, and the last was making the second of two attempts at the free-throw line to keep it at a two-possession game.

Both the look and the stretch of play was something Staley saw coming from this team during practice before and during the regular season.

The Gamecocks replaced all five starters from last year’s run to the Final Four, sending four onto the WNBA. Four of this year’s starters were on the bench for the loss to Iowa, including Johnson.

She was on the court near the top of the arc during that game, surveying the defense with the ball and nobody else around her. Hawkeyes star Caitlin Clark saw her and waved her off, in a moment that went viral online.

Johnson passed the ball out.

Now, she says that moment is the best thing that’s ever happened to her.

“It just told me to get in the gym, work on my weaknesses,” Johnson said.

That’s the mentality Staley is looking for from this roster. The Gamecocks have had individual moments like Cardoso’s late 3-pointer against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament and Johnson stepping up against Indiana, but Staley said the practice gym is where she feels most comfortable about her team.

She credits the team’s practice squad, dubbed “The Highlighters” for helping fuel that competitive drive. They beat the Gamecocks in those practice settings. A lot.

“No matter what the speed of our opponents are, they’re much quicker,’ Staley said “They do it at a much faster pace. So they’ve allowed us to see the game a little slower if teams aren’t as quick as our Highlighters.”

Staley has looked on in practice, during games and off the court as her team has come together. She’s coached them up, yes, but noticed they’ve risen together in their own way to overcome obstacles.

“We like to think we, as coaches, have a hand in who the identity of our team is,” Staley said. “This team created that. They created it themselves.”

As the lead over Indiana dwindled in the second half, she strayed from calling a timeout for adjustments. Why? Because she knew the Gamecocks could do it themselves.

“They don’t want to lose, and they have an uncanny way of figuring it out, player by player,” Staley said. “They’re not fazed by losing a 22-point lead or going down double digits. They’re not fazed by it. It’s unbelievable to see how they handle adverse situations all season long.”

The staff called a play to get the ball to Cardoso, who drew extra defenders from the Hoosiers that left Raven Johnson open at the right side of the three-point arc.

Johnson got her feet set and fired, hitting a clutch three-pointer that all but put the game away minutes later.

That’s not the kind of shot Johnson would’ve had the confidence to take last year, she said. As the clock dwindled down and the lead did with it, she reminded herself of how last year ended and how that felt.

It’s a shot she’s taken countless times before, during and after practice. Her coaches and teammates have watched her get a quota of shots up every single day, and everyone on the Gamecocks side of the floor felt good when it left her hand.

Te-Hina Paopao, a transfer addition from Oregon, said she knew the shot was going in as soon as Johnson caught the ball.

“When Raven’s in rhythm and she knows that the ball is coming to her she sets her feet and when she’s in rhythm, it’s going to go in,” Paopao said.

Johnson credits her teammates for the confidence it took to take it, the kind she lacked during last year’s run. But if she wasn’t the one to shoot, she would’ve had confidence in any of Paopao, Hall or any of the other Gamecocks taking it.

“We uplift everyone as a team no matter who it is,” Johnson said.

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