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South Carolina beats Iowa to take home NCAA women’s championship title: Highlights

Raven Johnson couldn’t stop herself. One viewing of South Carolina’s loss to Iowa in the Final Four last spring would lead to another. And another. And another.

The image of Hawkeyes star Caitlin Clark waving Johnson off when the Gamecocks guard had the ball at the top of the key, as if to say “no threat,” became seared into Johnson’s mind. It hurt in ways that left Johnson wondering if she even wanted to do this anymore.

And still, she couldn’t hit pause. Or delete.

“People were like ‘Can you stop watching that game?’” Johnson said yesterday. “And I was like ‘I can’t, I just can’t.’”

It wasn’t until senior Laeticia Amihere basically staged an intervention that Johnson found the strength to move on.

“I don’t even know how she got in my room,” Johnson said. “I thought I locked the door. But she got me closer to God … She’s really the one that really helped me get over that hump.”

A year later, Johnson believes she’s a different player. One eager for a chance at redemption on Sunday when the unbeaten Gamecocks face Clark and the Hawkeyes in the NCAA championship.

Looking back, Johnson doesn’t see all those viewings of the biggest loss of her still burgeoning career as some form of punishment. She has reframed those dark days. They weren’t torture, even if it might have felt like it at the time amid all the tears. She was growing, even if she wasn’t aware of it.

“I think I was learning from the game, learning what I could have done better, what the team could have done better,” Johnson said. “Looking at how they scouted us. Looking at how they played me. Looking at how they played my team.”

Johnson doesn’t blame Clark for giving her an ocean of space to let it fly, knowing she likely wouldn’t. It’s what Johnson would have done if the player she was guarding made just 24% of her 3-pointers, as she did as a freshman.

It didn’t matter that Johnson actually played well that night, scoring 13 points and making half of her six shots from behind the 3-point arc. She wasn’t a threat from the outside. Not consistently anyway, and she knew it.

Even worse, so did Clark.

A year later, things have changed. Johnson is 7 of 13 from 3 during the NCAA Tournament. She knocked down three of her five attempts from behind the arc in a blowout win over North Carolina State in the Final Four on Friday.

They were looks she might not have taken — heck, she didn’t take — a year ago. It’s unlikely Clark will treat her so dismissively in a rematch 12 months in the making.

“She got in the gym, and she got better, and I admire that,” Clark said. “I think that’s what makes great players great. And that’s exactly what she did.”

Johnson allowed there was a time, however brief, in the aftermath of the loss when she considered “quitting.” She never took those concerns to South Carolina coach Dawn Staley. Maybe she didn’t have to.

Staley understands the young women that arrive on campus as 18-year-olds will evolve during their time with the program. Yes, having the game’s biggest star humiliate you on the sport’s biggest stage — as South Carolina’s Bree Hall put it — was difficult. Yet Staley never worried about Johnson’s ability to turn the experience into an opportunity to grow.

“She’s in such a learning phase of her life,” Staley said. “She’s open to learning — not just basketball, but history. She’s learning what she likes. She’s learning a pathway of who she wants to be. And she’s unafraid to go out there to say or do some things that, it will rock you a little bit, it will make you laugh, but it is who she’s becoming.”

The next step, a vital one, awaits against the Hawkeyes. Johnson admits she was “definitely hoping” for another shot at Iowa. However it goes, she is unlikely to watch it “100 times,” though she has no regret on the path she took to get back to this moment.

“Like Coach says if you don’t watch the bad stuff why watch the good stuff?” Johnson said.

And there has been plenty of “good stuff” during the 37-game win streak that Johnson and the Gamecocks will carry into the final. Her assists are up this season. Rebounds and shooting percentage, too.

The player who was “so nervous” to go out and play last spring hardly looks it this time around. The notes of encouragement she received from Amihere in the aftermath of the Iowa loss have stuck with her. The cards talked of confidence and courage. Of what it takes for a flower to bloom.

The seeds were planted during that time spent holed up in her room, a time whose lessons have propelled her forward.

“Like it made me mentally strong,” Johnson said. “I feel like if I can handle that, I can handle anything in life.”

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