Johnson flips script to help cap South Carolina's perfect season

CLEVELAND — With confetti falling all around her on the championship stage, Raven Johnson finally exorcised the feelings of humiliation and defeat she couldn’t let go.

“All I have to say,” she belted into the mic to the cheering South Carolina crowd inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, “is the revenge tour is over!”

In Sunday’s 87-75 national championship victory over Iowa, Johnson scored just three points and missed 10 shots. But she also played a critical role defensively, cooling off Hawkeyes star Caitlin Clark, which proved to be a major difference in the final score.

In the first quarter, with Bree Hall largely guarding her, Clark set a championship game record with 18 points, as Iowa jumped to a double-digit lead. But in the second quarter, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley switched Johnson onto Clark. The game completely changed from there.

The rest of the way, with Johnson as her primary defender, Clark made 5-of-20 shots and scored just 12 points. With Johnson on her, Clark also committed four turnovers.

“I was ready for the moment,” Johnson said. “I studied her moves, and I was ready. I had confidence this year. I was telling myself, last year was not going to happen again.”

As a freshman in last year’s Final Four, Johnson wasn’t quite ready for such a big moment.

The Hawkeyes defeated South Carolina 77-73 to advance to that national championship game, while Clark poured in 41 points to set a single-game record for the highest-scoring NCAA tournament semifinal. In the first quarter of that game, Clark also waved off Johnson dribbling behind the 3-point line, leaving her completely unguarded. Johnson turned town the opportunity to take a wide-open shot, and Clark’s act of disrespect toward Johnson went viral.

Johnson didn’t let that moment go. Instead, it fueled her through her sophomore season. Immediately after Iowa defeated UConn in the Final Four on Friday, Johnson texted Hall and said it was time for their “get back” game.

“I’m so proud of her, and the work that she’s put in has really paid off,” Hall said. “Her defense was really big. She was really locking (Clark) down.”

The final play of the first half underscored it all. Clark dribbled the ball upcourt, hoping to hold possession for the final shot to potentially give the Hawkeyes a halftime lead. Instead, Johnson swiped the ball away and drove in for the layup.

Johnson’s only field goal of the game proved to be South Carolina’s most emphatic.

“Sometimes I feel like I wasn’t even playing defense,” Gamecocks guard MiLaysia Fulwiley said. “I was just sitting there watching Raven defend Clark. I’m so excited I got to see it.”

Staley said she knew she would turn to Johnson to check Clark at some point in the game. And Staley said she knew the matchup would have a significant bearing on the outcome.

“We knew (Clark) was going to get her points,” Staley said. “We wanted her to get her points in an inefficient way. Like, I look at the stat sheet, it’s beautiful. If she’s shooting 50%, we lose the basketball game.

“For Raven, I think it was psychologically helpful to be able to play Iowa and Caitlin, to just release. 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. . … It’s pretty cool that Raven was able to just kind of check off a goal and move forward.”

Clark was gracious about Johnson before and after the game. On Saturday, she said she “admired” the way Johnson had bounced back with her 3-point shot (24% last year to 37% this season). Afterward, Clark lauded Johnson again, noting she “defended well.”

Clark will now be moving forward into the WNBA. And as Staley noted, Johnson can move forward now, too.

“Because of what happened last year, (this) was an apology to my teammates, my coaches and myself,” Johnson said. “Like I said, it was a revenge tour.

“And there’s no better way than to play them in the championship and beat them.”

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