A dynasty no doubt: Dawn Staley, Gamecocks WBB cement legacy with third NCAA title

The Gamecocks knew they had it.

They knew when Tessa Johnson, who scored a team-high 19 points, nabbed a defensive rebound on a missed Caitlin Clark layup with about a minute and 38 seconds remaining in the game.

USC led 84-75. The team’s final three points would come from the free throw line, as Iowa fouled four times and watched the game fall out of reach.

But it was after the Johnson rebound that South Carolina’s bench turned around to face its fans. Players waved their hands up and down, pleading for the crowd to cheer even louder. Former Gamecock-turned-assistant-coach Khadijah Sessions lifted her hand to her ear, taunting for more. Sessions turned and hugged fellow assistant Mary Wooley. Bree Hall and Chloe Kitts embraced.

On the last possession of the game, Raven Johnson dribbled the clock out, leading to a USC turnover with 20 seconds remaining. As she did, Hall placed her hands on her head and opened her mouth in awe. She wasn’t shocked that they’d won but amazed that their moment finally came.

Dawn of a dynasty?

Forget it. The Gamecocks have arrived. Well, more than that. They’ve cemented themselves as the premier program of today.

South Carolina became the 10th team in Division I women’s basketball history to go undefeated (38-0) and win a national championship (first since UConn in 2016), defeating Iowa 87-75 Sunday at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland.

Coach Dawn Staley is now the first Black head coach to win three national championships (after becoming the first to win two).

And making history is cool. But she’s already done it so many times before. This win was for her babies. From her “Freshies” — Aliyah Boston, Laeticia Amihere, Brea Beal, Zia Cooke and Olivia Thompson whose careers ended in the 2023 national semifinal game — to her “Rookies,” as freshmen Tessa Johnson and MiLaysia Fulwiley are known within the team.

A dream deferred, but not denied. And from the season’s very first game five months (and one day) ago in Paris, never in doubt.

Only six Gamecocks remain from last year’s Final Four squad, which fell 77-73 in Iowa, spoiling a previously perfect season. But the hurt of having lost to Iowa in the national semifinals was strong enough to haunt the whole 2023-24 team. “We never want to feel that way again,” returners Raven Johnson, Hall, Kitts, Ashlyn Watkins, Sania Feagin and Kamilla Cardoso have echoed all year.

So they didn’t.

They led their team — bolstered by stellar newcomers Te-Hina Paopao, Fulwiley and Tessa Johnson — to 38 consecutive victories. The only thing South Carolina’s freshmen know about losing is that they hate it. Their teammates taught them that. The ones so determined to redeem last year’s NCAA Tournament loss that they willed their way to a second consecutive perfect season.

Their long traversed “revenge tour” is finally complete.

Raven Johnson, who dubbed this the year of revenge, looked over at her bench as the buzzer sounded Sunday. She saw the coaches and players embraced in a large group hug, which came together naturally, without having to call anyone over. When Staley emerged from the huddle, Raven Johnson saw her crying.

“I’ve never seen her cry,” Raven Johnson said. “She never shows her emotions. She tries to keep her head high for us.”

She may have been crying, but she held her head — and her Waterford Crystal WBCA national championship trophy — high.

“You carry the burden of every single one of your players, all the coaches and staff members that put so much into our team,” Staley said, explaining her emotions after the game. “And it’s a heavy load to be undefeated, to finish the job.”

Paopao and Tessa Johnson watched last year’s Final Four game from home, believing South Carolina would’ve walked away with a victory had 3-point shooters like themselves been on the roster. They combined for six of USC’s eight 3s Sunday. Without their contributions, the Gamecocks might still be chasing a third title.

As the purple, red, white, black, orange and various shades of blue confetti rained down, Hall openly sobbed. “I’m just so happy,” she croaked. Assistant coach Jolette Law told her not to cry. She earned this, Law said, with all that hard work.

Three hundred and 73 days ago, Staley gave Hall a mission in the locker room at American Airlines Center in Dallas:

“Get us back here, Breezy.”


“To complete what she asked for was just awesome,” Hall said.

Last year’s 36-1 season was marred by a last-second heartbreak. For as sad as that defeat, that denial of what felt rightfully theirs was, this season was that joyful.

Dunking a balloon on coach Dawn Staley in the locker room. TikTok dances and tiny mic “Tea time with Tessa” videos. An impromptu Boyz II Men singalong in front of a sold-out crowd to watch the Gamecocks pre-championship open practice Saturday.

Raven Johnson gave her piece of the 2024 championship net to Boston, who was working the Final Four as an analyst and television reporter for ESPN. She and Amihere shared tears of triumph watching their past teammates and new Gamecock sisters relish in the moment.

Such a joyful, transformative season.

How could it have ended any other way?