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South Carolina tops Iowa 87-75 in national championship to complete perfect season

CLEVELAND — Raven Johnson never shied away from her ultimate goal.

She wanted a national championship, and she wanted it to come by beating Iowa.

“Like I said, it was a revenge tour and there’s no better way than to play them in the championship and beat them,” Johnson said.

Last year she became a social media phenomenon, but not in a positive way, when Iowa star Caitlin Clark waved her off when she was wide open at the 3-point arc. They didn’t respect Johnson’s scoring ability.

In Sunday’s national championship win, Johnson didn’t do much scoring, but her defense helped the Gamecocks beat Iowa 87-75 to become the first undefeated national champion since UConn in 2016.

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Johnson, who switched onto Clark in the first quarter after she had 13 points in two minutes, had just three points. But she held Clark to just three points in the second quarter.

Redemption felt sweet for Johnson and everybody involved at South Carolina, including coach Dawn Staley, who was boisterous throughout the game.

“I was emotional at the beginning of the game because I didn’t want what happened last year to happen this year. So I was handling things in real time, not afterwards,” Staley said. “I’m going to move to handling things in real time and not having to wait until there’s an ending that shouldn’t be. I was like that throughout the entire season, but for this one, I wasn’t going to allow what I felt happened to us last year to happen this year.

“So I had a little bit of PTSD, and I addressed it in real time.”

From the start, though, it looked like things would go exactly like last year. In the 2023 Final Four, Iowa jumped out to a nine-point lead in the first quarter.

On Sunday, Iowa led 10-0 and then 20-9 on the back of 13 straight points from Clark. The national player of the year finished with 30 points and eight rebounds in the game. She became the all-time leader in points in the NCAA Tournament with 492 points, passing Chamique Holdsclaw in just 17 games. Holdsclaw did it in 22 games.

And her 18 first-quarter points were the most in a quarter in a national championship game.

In her last game — a legacy game — Clark looked ready for the moment. But South Carolina stayed focused.

The key for the Gamecocks all season has been their depth. They played nine players for double-digit minutes on Sunday and four players scored in double figures. Freshman guard Tessa Johnson led the way with 19 points. Kamilla Cardoso, who was named the NCAA Tournament’s most outstanding player, finished with 15 points and 17 rebounds, Chloe Kitts had 11 points and 10 rebounds and Te-Hina Paopao had 14 points.

But that depth didn’t show in just the offensive side. When Bree Hall left the game in the first quarter with two fouls, Staley turned to Johnson to contain Clark.

Most players in the country don’t have one player who can chase Clark and make things difficult for her. South Carolina had multiple.

“To be able to have all those fresh legs on Caitlin was really tough,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “And not only their depth, their height. I’m not just talking about their centers. They’re really pretty big at every position, which makes it hard. They could recover really well when we had threes.”

As the Gamecocks kept sending fresh bodies, (they outscored Iowa’s bench 37-0) they started a comeback. South Carolina took its first lead of the game at the 4:56 mark of the second quarter on a Cardoso layup. That didn’t last long, though.

South Carolina trailed by four with 1:54 left in the first half, and it ended the half on a 5-0 run to take a three-point lead into the break. That momentum carried over to the third quarter, as South Carolina opened the third quarter on a 6-0 run.

South Carolina led by nine points with 8:09 left in the third quarter. In a span of four game minutes, the Gamecocks had flipped the momentum.

“We knew they were going to go on runs,” Clark said. “By no means, when we started off as hot as we did, did we think we’d be able to hold that lead. That’s just what teams do. There’s some crazy statistics where South Carolina just outscores everybody in the second half by a ton of points every single game.”

All season, though, Iowa has been a team that can score quickly and wear teams down. They average 91.4 points and shoot 37 percent from deep.

Staley knew the game wasn’t over.

And while Clark gets a lot of the credit, it’s the supporting cast she leans on in some of the big moments. On Sunday, with Iowa down 14 points with less than eight minutes left, it was Clark, Gabbie Marshall, Sydney Affolter and Kate Martin who came up big to send Iowa on a 13-4 run.

South Carolina’s lead was just five with 4:12 left, and a sold-out Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse was on its feet trying to will Clark and the Hawkeyes to make one more push.

But South Carolina was too deep. It never wore down against the Hawkeyes, unlike other opponents.

Iowa didn’t score in the final four minutes of the game, and the celebrations started well before the final buzzer sounded. South Carolina fans were cheering with more than a minute left and the players felt it on the floor when Iowa stopped fouling just under the one-minute mark.

The Gamecocks’ dynasty is real. South Carolina has won two of the last three national championships and has done it with a 109-3 record in the last three seasons.

Much of that credit goes to Staley, who won a national championship in 2022 led by national player of the year Aliyah Boston. She came back in 2023, but South Carolina lost its undefeated season to Iowa in the Final Four.

Staley lost nearly that entire team, outside of Cardoso, Johnson and Ashlyn Watkins, and with a new roster, ran the table, making history. South Carolina became the 10th NCAA women’s basketball team to complete an undefeated season.

The significance was not lost on Staley.

“I mean, it’s heavy. It’s heavy,” she said. “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.

“And you get emotional because you just want that for them, and you’re happy that you’re able to, because only one team wins the national championship. And when you win a national championship, there’s more trust that’s built that you can take into the summer workouts and the postseason workouts and in the fall and into another season.”

But before Staley started celebrating, she took time to appreciate Clark, who has been the driving force behind a record-setting NCAA Tournament and took Iowa to back-to-back national titles.

“Her shoulders were heavy and getting a lot of eyeballs on our game,” Staley said in her news conference. “And sometimes as a young person, it can be a bit much, but I thought she handled it with class.

“I hope that every step of the ladder of success that she goes, she’s able to elevate whatever room she’s in.”

Required reading

(Photo: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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