South Carolina women's basketball: "Tournament Tessa" Johnson delivered when the Gamecocks needed her most

On3 imageby:Chris Wellbaum04/08/24


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On March 31, 2023, Tessa Johnson sat at home in Albertville, Minnesota, and watched the Final Four. 

She had fallen in love with South Carolina a year earlier when she attended the Final Four in Minneapolis and saw South Carolina beat Louisville. Johnson committed to South Carolina in the fall and was watching her future teammates try to pull off the 10th undefeated season in NCAA history.

Instead, Iowa pulled off a shocking upset by collapsing in the paint and counting on South Carolina to miss shots. It worked as South Carolina shot 4-20 from three and lost 77-73.

“I just wish I could have helped them in any way,” Johnson said in July 2023. “I’m a shooter. So I would have been out there spacing the floor. It was hard to watch.”

On April 7, 2024, Tessa Johnson scored a team-high 19 points on 3-5 shooting from three to lead South Carolina to a win over Iowa in the national championship game and complete just the 10th undefeated team in NCAA history. 

A lot happened in between those two Final Four games. Johnson turned her ankle in shootaround before the Clemson game and missed the next three contests. That absence slowed her development, and Johnson didn’t start to find her rhythm until February when she went from a bit player to a key reserve.

Then came March. She was crucial in the SEC quarterfinal win over Texas A&M, calming the jittery Gamecocks and then hitting a three-point play to end the Aggies’ last run. Johnson outplayed Tennessee’s Rickea Jackson in the first half of their semifinal matchup. She hit two threes to spark the decisive 30-2 run against North Carolina. And with the game on the line, Johnson converted another three-point play to eliminate Oregon State.

After that game, I asked Johnson if we should start calling her “Tournament Tessa.”

“No!” she laughed.

Then she scored nine points against NC State and again hit a three that sparked the decisive run. I asked her about the momentum-producing shot.

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“And then the one after, did you see the one after that?” Johnson said, referring to her badly-missed next attempt that hit off the side of the backboard. “I was doing a heat check.”

She was feeling good after the first one went in.

“Yeah, a little too good,” she said. “That’s okay, it happens, man.”

That attitude paid off two days later when she had the game of her life. She missed her first two shots but stayed calm as South Carolina clawed back and her tough pullup jumper drew South Carolina within two late in the first quarter.

Johnson’s first three tied the game in the second quarter. Her second, part of an 8-0 run, put the Gamecocks up seven. The third, an eye-popping catch-and-shoot of a three-quarter court pass from MiLaysia Fulwiley, put the Gamecocks up 11 near the end of the the third quarter.

Then, as she had done all postseason, when Iowa made a late run and cut South Carolina’s lead to five, Johnson attacked the basket and drew a foul. The freshman calmly sank both free throws to end Iowa’s last gasp.

“I like to win and one of the reasons I did come here was to win and the fact that it did happen, it’s everything,” Johnson said. “I can’t describe the feeling, but it’s a feeling.”

She is only the second player to set a career-high in the championship game, following Destanni Henderson in 2022, and the first freshman since Breanna Stewart to lead her team in scoring in the title game.

That’s some heady company, so I asked her again, should we call you “Tournament Tessa?”

“Sure, go ahead,” Johnson said.

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