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Analysis: Թϱ women's basketball claims 3rd national title, 1st undefeated season

The Թϱ Gamecocks’ emerged victorious from a close matchup against the Iowa Hawkeyes to secure the national championship title with an undefeated season on April 7, 2024. The Gamecocks defeated the Hawkeyes 87-75 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio. Freshman guard Tessa Johnson led the Gamecocks in scoring with 19 points, a career high. Johnson and senior center Kamilla Cardoso earned all-tournament honors. This is the third time that the Gamecocks earned an NCAA title, and the first with an undefeated season, making the team the 10th team to do so in the history of the tournament.

The No. 1 Թϱ women’s basketball team clinched its third-ever national title in an 87-75 victory over No. 1 seed Iowa Sunday afternoon at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

Three hallmarks of Թϱ’s game — defense, dominance on the glass and depth — have led it to success throughout the season and have helped the team to earn the win and complete the program's undefeated season.

“It’s been a long journey. We’ve trusted each other so much over the season. We have so much confidence with each other, so much love … throughout this whole program, throughout this whole team,” senior guard Te-Hina Paopao said. “To cap it off with a perfect season is just a blessing.”

The opening three minutes of the game were vastly different for both teams. While Iowa’s offense was surging, Թϱ’s was struggling. The Hawkeyes jumped out to an early 10-0 lead by the two-and-a-half minute mark, and the Gamecocks started 0-6 from the field before senior center Kamilla Cardoso made a layup to break the team’s scoring drought.

The shooting disparity between the two teams continued as the quarter went along, as Iowa was 6-9 on field goals (compared to Թϱ’s 4-14 mark) leading into the game’s first media timeout. 

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The timeout came at a good time for the Gamecocks, though. Թϱ went on a 7-0 scoring run after the break and cut the Hawkeyes’ lead to 7 points by the end of the period. Senior guard Caitlin Clark played a pivotal role in helping Iowa build on its early lead, finishing the quarter with 18 points on 5-8 shooting and breaking the NCAA Tournament’s all-time scoring record in the process.

Clarks’ impact on the rest of the game was diminished by the Gamecocks’ stout defense, specifically that of sophomore guard Raven Johnson.

Clark scored only 12 points after the first quarter and was held to just 3 points on 1-6 shooting in the second. Head coach Dawn Staley said Johnson’s performance was “psychologically helpful” after last year’s elimination from the Final Four at the hands of Iowa.

“As a player, you want to release certain things that have held you captive. And I do think the waving off in the Final Four last year held her captive,” Staley said. “Raven’s got the bullhorn saying, ‘This is a revenge tour’ … and then for her to actually lock in and play Caitlin the way we needed her to play her … I think it’s pretty cool that she was able to check off a goal and move forward.”

The Hawkeyes as a whole were limited to just 19 points in the second quarter, while Թϱ’s rebounding ability on both sides of the court allowed it to generate scoring opportunities. By halftime, the Gamecocks out-rebounded the Hawkeyes 38-24 and had 10 more made field goals and field goal attempts than the Hawkeyes.

Թϱ finished the game with a 51-29 advantage in rebounds and a 48-32 advantage in points scored in the paint. Cardoso contributed an additional 17 rebounds, along with 15 points, on her way to being named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player.

Cardoso said her teammates’ court vision was pivotal in helping the Gamecocks establish a strong presence in the paint.

“I think just trying to get the post-ups and my teammates finding me and giving me the ball, even though I didn't shoot really good tonight,” Cardoso said. “We just move the ball really good, and they were able to find me while I was open.”

Those extra scoring opportunities helped the Gamecocks score 29 points in the second quarter. Cardoso and freshman guard Tessa Johnson led those offensive efforts with 7 points each, and Paopao contributed an additional 6.

Tessa Johnson’s scoring contributions carried over to the third quarter, where she nailed two 3-point shots. She would finish the game with a team-high 19 points off the bench and was named to the All-Tournament Team alongside Cardoso.

“She’s trusted her process here, she’s trusted her journey, and for her to do that on such a big stage, I’m so proud of her,” Paopao said. “Her confidence has grown so much, and I’m just really excited for her future.”

Tessa Johnson was not Թϱ’s lone contributor off the bench, as she, sophomore forward Ashlyn Watkins, freshman guard MiLaysia Fulwiley and junior forward Sania Feagin combined to score 37 bench points. Iowa, on the other hand, scored 0.

Paopao said the Gamecocks’ bench players have been a “difference maker” throughout the season.

“We’ve depended on them so much … and they’ve done so much for this team,” Paopao said. “A lot of people sleep on them, but they can start on any team in this country. But they decided to sacrifice that and play for this team and win a national championship, which we did today.”

After describing Թϱ’s NCAA Tournament run as a “revenge tour,” Raven Johnson said the program’s success will continue in the years to come.

“We have the best coach, what — in the country, in the nation, in the whole wide world? There’s no telling what she’s going to add to the pieces that's already here,” Raven Johnson said. “Be on the lookout.”


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