Once dismissed by Caitlin Clark, Raven Johnson is ready for another shot. |T

 

Raven Johnson and South Carolina will face Iowa on Sunday for the national championship. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

 

CLEVELAND — Raven Johnson couldn’t stop crying. At the same time, like a glutton for punishment, she kept returning to the source of that emotional pain — over and over and over again.

A year ago, Johnson had the worst moment of her basketball career. Her South Carolina team faced Iowa in the Final Four, seeking a second consecutive trip to the national championship game. By the end of the loss, the Atlanta native had gone viral at the hands of college basketball’s darling, Caitlin Clark.

It came in the form of the ultimate disrespect for a hooper: not being defended. Clark stood in the paint, trying to help deny a pass to Gamecocks forwards, as Johnson dribbled at the top of the arc. Clark showed absolutely no concern about South Carolina’s point guard attempting a three-pointer. There was so little worry, in fact, that Clark dismissively waved her hand and backed away even farther before Johnson feebly passed the ball; moments later, Johnson got it back and turned it over.

Johnson was so embarrassed that she hid in her room and refused to answer the phone. The one thing she did do was watch that game on repeat — more than 100 times, she estimates, as friends begged her to stop. The moment nearly destroyed the budding career of a player who had been rated the top point guard in the high school Class of 2021 by ESPN.

“Caitlin’s competitive, so I don’t blame her for what she did, but it did hurt me,” Johnson said. “It definitely hurt me bad to the point that I wanted to quit basketball. I just feel like it helped me. It made me mentally strong. I feel like if I can handle that, I can handle anything in life.”

A depressed Johnson is hard to imagine for anyone who has seen her play this season, particularly in the NCAA tournament. She has helped South Carolina to an undefeated record and a spot in the national championship game, where the Gamecocks will face Clark’s Hawkeyes on Sunday. Joy radiates from her to the point that she can be seen smiling in the middle of a game while bringing the ball up the court.

This has been the “revenge tour,” by her own description, and Johnson will get the matchup she pined for.

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“When you’re embarrassed, when we lost … it makes you question [things],” South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said. “The game will do that to you. Anything that you love and you’re passionate about will make you question it at some point.

“That is what you need for your breakthrough. And if you don’t have enough power, strength, your breakthrough will never happen. Raven is going to be a great player because she was able to break through that moment and catapult her into that next level now.”

Johnson struggled against star guard Caitlin Clark and Iowa during a national semifinal last year. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Johnson has developed into one of the most impactful point guards in the country. Her 4.9 assists per game rank third in the SEC, and her 3.1 assist-to-turnover ratio is second in the country. Her scoring (8.2 points per game) has nearly doubled from last season, and she no longer has any hesitation to pull the trigger from deep. That was her offseason focus — working on her shot so that viral scenario would never happen again. She showed what she can do during a 79-75 victory over Indiana in the Sweet 16, burying an open three with 53 seconds left to put her team up 77-72. Johnson also had a 17-assist game against Clemson in November.

Not only has her offense improved, but she has been a ballhawk on defense, harassing opposing point guards. Those paying close attention will see Johnson mimic putting on a seat belt. She and freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley dubbed the South Carolina defenders the “Seatbelt Gang” for their pressure defense.

A notable opponent has taken notice.

“She’s been a true leader,” Clark said. “She’s led that team. After losing five starters, after losing Zia Cooke, who in my eyes was one of the best players in the country last year, I really admire everything that she’s done this year. She got in the gym and she got better, and I admire that.”

Johnson will have a chance to finish off her revenge tour on the biggest stage. History is on the line: South Carolina can become the 10th team to win it all and finish undefeated. Only four programs have done so — because Connecticut has done it six times. South Carolina had that chance last year, too, before Iowa broke up the party. The Hawkeyes are back in the final for the second consecutive season after advancing to the Final Four for just the third time. A national championship is all that’s missing on Clark’s résumé.

Johnson admits to being “so, so nervous” last season going against the face of college basketball. Clark’s legacy has only grown; she is now the all-time leading scorer in Division I college basketball history. But this time, Johnson said, things are different. She credits former teammate Laeticia Amihere for pulling her out of her room, taking her to church and helping her build a relationship with God that she still leans on.

Gone are the tears. Gone is the self-doubt. Gone is the fear of going viral for the wrong reason.

“This time. I’m not scared,” Johnson said. “I’m ready for the moment. I think what happened last year was the best thing that ever happened to me. A lot of people probably couldn’t handle what did happen to me.”

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