Tuesday, May 28, 2024

How Caitlin Clark’s wave-off spurred Gamecocks’ Raven Johnson’s revenge season

It had to be this way.

Raven Johnson so hated that moment that she thought about quitting. While her teammates and coach said they have never watched the replay of South Carolina’s 2023 Final Four loss to Iowa, Johnson certainly has — as in dozens, if not hundreds of times.

What’s lost in the scrutiny is that Johnson played well. She shot six 3-pointers and hit three, which any shooter that’s ever lived will tell you that’s about as good as you can expect. And it certainly wasn’t Johnson’s fault that the Gamecocks’ proud defense first couldn’t stop a pick-and-roll, then couldn’t get any kind of leash on Caitlin Clark as she scored 41 points. Those are team problems.

But Johnson couldn’t get it out of her mind. As much as her family and friends told her to quit looking at it, she kept looking at it and for it.

There she is, open to shoot, and Clark was defending her. Clark backed up with a dismissive wave, as if Johnson’s 3-point prowess wasn’t worth the effort.

If Johnson had taken the challenge, if she had risen and stuck a 3-pointer and USC had still lost the game, would Johnson have felt any different? No one will ever know.

Because Johnson didn’t. She passed the ball. And USC lost the game.

That snub motivated Johnson, pushed her, goaded her to never let it happen again. She stayed in the gym all summer, fine-tuning a shot that was already terrific. She labeled this year “Raven’s Revenge Season,” clarifying it was a “revenge season” for the team but leaving no doubt that she had a score to settle.

From a basketball standpoint, this matchup seemed fated to happen. South Carolina and Iowa are the top two seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

From a Raven Johnson standpoint, this matchup had to happen. Iowa and South Carolina on Sunday for the national championship, giving Johnson as close to a true revenge scenario as possible. Nothing takes away what happened last year.

But to get back at Clark, to deny her a ring while placing one on Johnson’s finger?

Priceless.

“It happened in the right way,” she said during Saturday’s practice/press day. “I’m ready for the matchup, just going from last year, the pain that we felt last year. I think it happened at the right time and it happened in the right way.”

Her teammates spoke of how she battled for this. Maybe she didn’t say “Iowa” or “Caitlin” before every practice, but it was always on her mind.

“She’s worked on that shot, she’s worked since last summer. She was determined. She did not like what Caitlin Clark had done to her,” Ashlyn Watkins said. “And she’s proven that she can shoot the ball, she’s been making 3s all season this year. She’s not going to get waved off this year.”

And her coach, who only wants her to be the floor general and distributor that the Gamecocks’ offense needs, has encouraged it. Maybe Dawn Staley doesn’t like that Johnson has made this moment all about personal business, but she’s also seen how that approach has fueled a stellar season.

“I think, when you’re embarrassed, I think when we lost, like all of that … it makes you question. The game will do that to you,” Staley said. “That is what you need for your breakthrough. And if you don’t have enough just power, strength, your breakthrough will never happen.”

Johnson was calm, unperturbed, feeling no pressure on Saturday. She admitted that last year, being told to guard Clark may have caused some nerves.

But now she knows what’s coming. She knows it seems that despite the Gamecocks’ glorious 37-0 year and being a betting favorite, USC is the underdog. She knows that Clark is the story, chasing a presumed destined national championship.

She also knows that she’s the point guard of a team that has been viewed as the country’s top-ranked team for all but one week this season, and one more win clinches a reality as the undisputed best team in the country.

She wants it for her team. She wants it for herself. She’s talked all season about how this is her “revenge season.” It wouldn’t have truly been that way with any other opponent.

“I’m definitely looking forward to this matchup. If UConn had won, I think I would have took that game as if it was Iowa,” she said. “But I’m definitely looking forward to this matchup.”

It had to be this way.

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