South Carolina women's basketball: Top 12 moments of the season

On3 imageby:Chris Wellbaum04/14/24


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South Carolina’s season was full of memorable moments. Beginning with the season-opening game in Paris, to a pivotal Tobacco Road Trip, to battles against nemesis LSU, a brawl in the SEC Tournament, nerve-wracking wins in Albany, and finally national championship revenge, there was no shortage of breathtaking, dramatic, and downright unbelievable moments.

Let’s take a look back at the 12 best moments.

MiLaysia Fulwiley’s buzzer-beater vs Rutgers
It was less of a “welcome to college” moment for the freshman than it was a “welcome to Fulwiley” moment for college basketball. With time ticking down in the first half of South Carolina’s exhibition game against Rutgers, Te-Hina Poapao casually flipped the ball to Fulwiley some five feet behind the three-point line. She calmly nailed the long three at the buzzer.

That exhibition, which South Carolina won 100-55, was the first sign that this would not be a rebuilding season. For those on hand, it was also the first glimpse of Fulwiley the walking highlight reel.

Fulwiley in Paris
The exhibition wasn’t televised, so Fulwiley’s first exposure to the basketball world at large came in the season-opener in Paris. She stole the show and almost overshadowed the Gamecocks’ impressive 100-71 win. The dominant showing immediately vaulted the Gamecocks back into the national championship conversation, especially in their own locker room.

Multiple players described looking around the locker room at halftime and realizing that the team was special. “We went into the locker room at halftime, we’re like, wait a minute, guys – we’re good,” Bree Hall said.

Ashlyn Watkins’ dunk against Kentucky
Watkins stole the ball from Amiya Jenkins just beyond the three-point line and took it the other way for her third-career dunk. 

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Big Shot Breezy’s go-ahead three against LSU
Bree Hall got off to a slow start this season but by conference play, she was back to playing tough defense and knocking down big shots. This was one of her biggest.

With the backing of its home crowd, LSU had sprinted out to an early double-digit lead, and for one of the few times all season South Carolina’s youth and inexperience showed. But the Gamecocks settled down and got back to their game. Hall had given South Carolina the lead with a three moments early, but Haily Van Lith answered to retie the game.

This was the game decider. Kamilla Cardoso got the ball in the post, drew the double team, and kicked out to Hall. She drained it. Game over.

Watkins’ block against UConn
UConn’s KK Arnold had a breakaway layup after a South Carolina turnover. Watkins chased her down for the block. But not just any block – Watkins emphatically blocked the shot and it bounced off Arnold’s face to give South Carolina the ball. It was the changing of the guard in one play: South Carolina is bigger, stronger, faster than UConn, and doing it in front of Rebecca Lobo cheering on UConn made it all the more satisfying.

Watkins’ steal and layup at Tennessee 
South Carolina had struggled all game against Tennessee and was clinging to a three-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. Watkins stole the ball from Rickea Jackson and cruised the other way for a layup. South Carolina now had a five-point lead and Tennessee didn’t threaten again.

Cardoso’s buzzer-beater
The shot that saved the undefeated season. While Tennesse was frantic and confused, South Carolina knew what play it wanted to run (pass to Cardoso, screen handoff to Paopao for three). With only 1.1 seconds left, Dawn Staley realized there wasn’t enough time for the handoff, so she told Cardoso to “Shoot that (blankity-blank).”

She did. Perfect season preserved.

The Brawl
Staley had occasionally bemoaned that the Freshies were too nice, and there was some feeling that it had cost them at the end of last season. That was never an issue this season. Everyone – players and coaches – seemed determined not to be walked over. 

It surfaced with scuffles against North Carolina and Duke (including Chloe Kitts blowing a kiss at a defender she’d just scored on). Staley put a stop to that, but not to the energy and flashiness that the Gamecocks played with. 

The fight has been broken down countless times, so we’ll skip to the aftermath. The Gamecocks rallied around Cardoso, feeling that it was wrong that she was the only one punished. The team grew closer but also matured, realizing that they had to be smarter and control their emotions to win a title.

South Carolina tortures Deja Kelly
North Carolina nearly beat South Carolina in November behind a huge game from Deja Kelly. Kelly also got under the Gamecocks’ skin, sparking a shoving match with a hip check on Watkins. South Carolina remembered it – and remembered the lessons from the brawl. Fulwiley and Raven Johnson made Kelly’s life hell and shadowed her every move. They made sure that she had to work for every step she took and dominated the game.

They insisted it wasn’t personal, but it was. South Carolina held Kelly to 2-13 shooting with six turnovers and made sure her last game in a Tar Heel uniform was a disaster.

Raven’s steal and layup off Caitlin Clark
We know the back story: Raven Johnson was overmatched against Clark a season earlier, capped by a viral moment went Clark waved off Johnson and didn’t even guard her. Raven wasn’t overmatched this time. Her steal and layup at the end of the first half was both a redemption play and a sign that the game had turned. 

Johnson and Hall did to Clark what Johnson and Fulwiley had done to Kelly a couple of weeks earlier. They made her work for every step she took. Clark had 18 points in the first quarter, but by the end of the half, the fatigue was showing when Johnson swiped the ball and ran away for a layup.

Fulwiley pass to Tessa for three against Iowa
Fulwiley didn’t have a great shooting game against Iowa (4-10), but she made her impact in other ways. She played tough defense, grabbed four rebounds, and dished out a team-high four assists. This was the best, to her fellow freshman Tessa Johnson.

Tessa’s free throws
March makes heroes. It’s why Olivia Gaines is still a Gamecock legend. Tessa Johnson isn’t Olivia Gaines, but in March she elevated herself from being the “other freshman” to one of the building blocks of South Carolina’s future.

She did it with three-point shooting, surprisingly strong defense, and most importantly, clutch free throws. 

When Texas A&M made a run in the SEC quarterfinals, Johnson converted a three-point play to end the threat. In the Elite Eight, Oregon State had drawn within four and forced a South Carolina timeout. Johnson converted a three-point play and Oregon State didn’t score again. 

Then on the biggest stage, Iowa used an 8-0 run and whittled a 14-point lead to six. Tessa Johnson, who began the season as the ninth player in the rotation and was now playing clutch minutes in the fourth quarter of the national championship, got the ball on the wing, drove, drew a foul, and calmly sank both free throws. 

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