Raven Johnson and South Carolina Cap ‘Revenge Tour’ in Perfect Fashion With Women’s Title

The unbeaten Gamecocks overhauled their entire starting lineup then completed a season of redemption by beating Caitlin Clark and Iowa for a national championship.
Johnson and Cardoso embrace after winning the 2024 national championship.
Johnson and Cardoso embrace after winning the 2024 national championship. / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When the matchup was set Friday, basketball fans (and television execs) everywhere were drooling over seeing the Iowa Hawkeyes take on the South Carolina Gamecocks. This game was set up to be an instant classic, no matter what the outcome was. 

But there was no one more excited for this than Raven Johnson. 

“All I have to say is: The revenge tour is over,” the sophomore point guard declared after the Gamecocks defeated the Hawkeyes 87–75 in the NCAA women’s national title game. 

After South Carolina’s Final Four loss to Iowa last year, Johnson couldn’t stop watching and rewatching the game. It didn’t matter that Johnson, then a redshirt freshman, had a respectable 13 points and was shooting 50% from three. Caitlin Clark had waved her off at the top of the circle, signifying that Johnson wasn’t a threat from the outside. A clip of the play went viral online and Johnson was embarrassed. And then she became obsessed. She watched the game over and over and over. She even started to wonder if she should keep playing basketball. 

But she didn’t quit. Instead, Johnson declared the 2023–24 season her revenge tour, an apology, she said, to herself, her teammates and most of all, her coach. She and the Gamecocks were going to prove they are not to be waved off. Not this season, even with a whole new starting lineup. And not on Sunday in Cleveland, even after being down by as much as 11 points in the first half. 

No, South Carolina got its revenge on the biggest stage possible, taking down Clark and waving away the fairy-tale finish that could have been by sending Clark out with a national title before becoming the presumed No. 1 pick in the 2024 WNBA draft next week. 

The Gamecocks were the ones to write a storybook ending: an undefeated season fueled by redemption and completed with a championship. After turning over the entire starting lineup from last year’s Final Four squad—graduating the legendary “Freshies” crew led by Aliyah Boston—many expected this to be a transition season for Dawn Staley. Instead, she put together one of the best women’s basketball teams we may have ever seen and just the 10th in the history of the game to finish undefeated. 

Johnson steals the ball from Clark during Sunday’s women’s national championship game.
Johnson steals the ball from Clark during Sunday’s women’s national championship game. / Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The weight of how last season ended hit Staley as the clock hit zeros and the coach was able to let out the emotions she carried all season long—right up until she won her third national title for the Gamecocks.

“I mean, it’s heavy, it’s heavy,” Staley said after the win. “You carry the burden of every single one of your players, all the coaches and staff members that put so much into our team. And it’s a heavy load to be undefeated, to finish the job.” 

Staley’s players said Sunday’s win was the first time they had ever seen their coach cry or get that emotional. In fact, all season long, players talked about how much looser she was compared to years past. When the Gamecocks had a one-point lead heading into halftime against the NC State Wolfpack in the Final Four, there was no yelling or screaming in the locker room. It was clear to Staley what adjustments needed to be made: find the open person and have a plan before you get the ball. 


But keeping calm and simple has not always been the way Staley has approached these moments in her coaching career. 

“No, I haven’t always been that way, good Lord. I’ve had to lay down my religion a few times at halftime,” Staley said Saturday. “But you approach each team in how they receive information. You deliver it in how they receive it because ultimately you just want them to get the message. Sometimes we as coaches mess up the message with how angry we can get, how competitive we can get in those moments.”

Starting last summer essentially from scratch, Staley had to figure out how to motivate a team of freshmen, transfers and players who never started last season. It certainly wasn’t an easy task, but she found the perfect way to get them to bond. 

“I wouldn’t say they were miserable, and misery loves company, but it was—more than the majority was out of shape,” Staley said. 

The team didn’t touch a ball in the summer. Instead, Staley gave her players grueling workouts and “Final Four Fridays,” which consisted of 5 a.m. wake-up calls and heading to Colonial Life Arena, where they carried a rope around through all the seats, going up and down the stairs while also holding kettlebells and medicine balls and making sure to never let the rope touch the ground.

Staley built a team that was made to find instant chemistry off the court—her daycare, she lovingly referred to them as. And with a team fortified by that summer of conditioning, they learned how to withstand pressure on the court. That lethal combo was in full force Sunday. 

Iowa came out fast and hard. Clark got in a rhythm early, scoring 18 points in the first quarter, 11 of those in the span of just 67 seconds. There wasn’t much stopping the Hawkeyes star in the first quarter, but South Carolina is built to withstand early pressure. The Gamecocks started the second quarter with a 7–0 run and erased what Clark had built in the first. Fittingly, Johnson closed out the first half when she got an easy steal from Clark and scored on the fast break, extending South Carolina’s lead to 49–46 heading into the locker room. South Carolina held Clark to just three points in the second quarter. And who was in charge of guarding her? Johnson, of course. 

Johnson and Cardoso embrace after winning the national championship.
Johnson and Cardoso embrace after winning the national championship. / Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

“For Raven, I think it was psychologically helpful to be able to play Iowa and Caitlin, to just release,” Staley said of the matchup. “As a player, you want to release certain things that have held you captive. And I do think the waving off in the Final Four last year held her captive.

“… Then for her to actually lock in and play Caitlin the way we needed her to play her—we knew [Clark] was going to get her points. We wanted her to get her points in an inefficient way.”

The second half went similarly for South Carolina, coming out with a 6–0 run and forcing Iowa coach Lisa Bluder to call a timeout just two minutes into the third quarter. The Gamecocks never gave up their lead, locking in defensively and in the paint. Sophomore Chloe Kitts had 10 rebounds and pitched in 11 points. Senior Kamilla Cardoso, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, ended her time as a Gamecock with a career-high 17 rebounds, playing through a knee injury she picked up Friday against the Wolfpack. 

While the Gamecocks’ signature team defense took care of Clark & Co., their other defining feature for the season—their depth—finished the job. South Carolina’s bench outscored the Hawkeyes, 37–0. Freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley, who quickly became a household name thanks to her highlight-filled debut against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the start of the season, contributed nine points and four assists. But it was her fellow freshman, Tessa Johnson, who finished as the team’s leading scorer, finishing with 19 points off the bench. 

“Tessa was due for a breakout game,” senior guard Te-Hina Paopao said of Johnson, who averaged 6.2 points per game heading into Sunday. “What better to do it than on a national stage?” 

Since the start of the NCAA tournament, Staley noticed her players were locked in even more than they had been during the regular season. They were focused and taking notes, taking things more seriously. 

“It wasn’t daycare this morning,” Staley said Saturday after her team’s film session. “I don’t know if it’s just because they just woke up, but they’re locked in.” 

And there was at least one player who has been locked since the last tournament. But with the revenge tour over, what will next season be for Raven Johnson? 

“You know, I haven’t thought about that yet,” Johnson said. “I’m gonna cherish the moment right now.” 

Kristen Nelson


Kristen Nelson is an associate editor for Sports Illustrated focused on women's sports. She also enjoys covering hockey and previously wrote for NHL.com.