South Carolina guard Raven Johnson embodies Gamecocks’ turnaround from 3-point range — Andscape
For South Carolina guard Raven Johnson, it’s a moment that could have left her scarred for life. That instance during the 2023 Final Four when Iowa’s Caitlin Clark dismissively waved off Johnson as she dribbled unguarded beyond the 3-point line, a flick-of-the-wrist gesture that showed disrespect at the level of NBA player Allen Iverson stepping over Tyronn Lue in the 2001 Finals.
On social media, that play in Iowa’s upset win over top-seeded South Carolina went viral. And in a social media world where heartlessness often appears to be a prerequisite, Johnson became a target.
“It hit me hard,” Johnson said this week. “So hard that I wanted to quit basketball. I spent a lot of days crying. I was like ‘dang, is this game for me?’ ”
The answer for Johnson three months into this season:
And she’s ready.
The long-range shooting of Johnson is one of the reasons South Carolina goes into Thursday’s much-anticipated game against defending national champion LSU (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) as:
If you followed South Carolina’s team last season, you’d think the last line was a misprint. While the team dominated in most statistical categories, 3-point shooting percentage was not one of them.
Clark’s wave aside, she was simply picking her poison, opting to crowd the lane — and not defend Johnson — against a Gamecocks team that ranked 173rd in 3-point shooting percentage last season (31%).
The fix for this season by South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was two-fold.
The first major move: Two weeks after the Iowa loss she hired Winston Gandy away from Duke. The new assistant assumed the responsibility of improving the team’s shooting.
“We wanted to be a better 3-point shooting team because we knew we needed to take it to another level to win a national championship,” said Johnson, who is shooting 40.6% (13 of 32) from 3 this season, up from 24.1% last season. “After practice, coach Winton won’t let us leave until we get up 100 shots.”
The second major move came three weeks after the Iowa loss when guard Te-Hina Paopao committed to South Carolina just weeks after she announced she was entering the transfer portal following two seasons at Oregon.
“I was going to TCU with Mark Campbell, who recruited me to Oregon,” Paopao said of the coach who assumed the TCU job last March. “Then Coach Staley called and, while I knew they needed some shooters, I was a bit shocked.”
While Paopao’s decision to transfer to South Carolina was based on the opportunity to be better prepared to play professionally, Staley made no promises.
“She told me to come here and just be who I am,” Paopao said. “And she said if I’m not on the court, that’s my fault.”
Paopao has fit in nicely to what was supposed to be a rebuilding season for South Carolina, averaging 12.5 points while shooting a nation’s best 55.8% from beyond the 3-point arc.
“She was sent by God, she’s been amazing,” said Bree Hall who, in her first year as a starter, is second on the team in 3-point shooting (48.5%). “She’s one of the best 3-point shooters in basketball and just her ability to stay calm keeps all of us calm.”
As good as South Carolina has been from behind the arc, the Gamecocks are not a high-volume 3-point shooting team (7.2 makes per game, which ranks 85th in the nation).
The key to the Gamecocks’ success?
On offense, five players average in double figures, led by center Kamilla Cardosa who is posting career highs in points (13.3) and rebounds (10.7) per game on a team that leads the nation in scoring margin (38.6).
On defense the Gamecocks lead the nation in blocks (8.9), defensive rebounds per game (35) and field goal percentage defense (29.4).
“I came into the season just not knowing, like, really, with no expectations,” Staley said earlier this year. “This team, it’s their first run. I wanted them to figure out what their identity would be. The trajectory has been great.”
And that trajectory has, so far, lived up to the expectations of Johnson, who labeled this “the revenge season” that currently has the Gamecocks 17-0. It’s a long way from the dark place she was in when South Carolina’s 2022-23 season came to an abrupt end.
The irony of that semifinal game: On a night South Carolina made just four of 20 3-point shots, Johnson was the team’s best long-range shooter, making three of her six attempts.
“The internet was bashing me,” said Johnson, who was the 2021 Naismith Girls High School Basketball Player of the Year in high school. “The video went viral, people kept adding me to the post and it really brought me down.”
There’s a great line from the late poet Maya Angelou:
I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.
Those words have proven to be true for Johnson, whose rough stretch last season came a year after a knee injury two games into 2021-22 season prematurely ended her freshman season.
When A’Ja Wilson, the former South Carolina All-American and 2023 WNBA champion with the Las Vegas Aces, was asked which college player had a bright future during her December appearance on the All The Smoke podcast, she predicted it would be Johnson.
“I think her being disrespected in the Final Four last year kind of woke her up,” Wilson said. “Sometimes you need to be brought out like that to be like, ‘let me get my game tight.’ I feel like she is going to be a star.”
Johnson was elated to hear Wilson’s support.
“That means a lot,” Johnson said. “And I agree — these are the types of incidents that can bring out the best of you.
“Everything that’s happened has added fuel to the fire. I’m happy I had a great support system through the tough times. This year is all about showing people who I am as a player, and what my game consists of.”