NCAA Tournament winners, losers: Kamilla Cardoso, Tessa Johnson shine; refs disappoint

CLEVELAND — It’s finally over, and no, there was not one shining moment.

There were too many of them to keep track.

The women’s NCAA Tournament put on a show for the last three weeks − and a well-televised one at that − reminding much of America why they fell hard for a ponytailed, logo-shooting guard from Iowa. Caitlin Clark has rewritten the NCAA record book over the last four years, and the game is better for it.

But still, as USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb put it so perfectly: "It’s Caitlin Clark’s world, but it was South Carolina’s season."

The Gamecocks finished a perfect 38-0 Sunday afternoon with an 87-75 win over Clark and Iowa, giving Dawn Staley her third national title.

South Carolina will own the final highlight of the season, but the tournament was full of them: Middle Tennessee pulling off a stunner in the first round, Iowa State’s Audi Crooks serving notice Clark isn’t the only star in the Midwest, Duke and NC State making big March Madness runs and celebrating with their men’s teams, the Oregon State Beavers officially submitting their application to be America’s team.

South Carolina Gamecocks guard Raven Johnson (25) dribbles the ball as center Kamilla Cardoso trails against the Iowa Hawkeyes during the 2024 NCAA Tournament championship game.
South Carolina Gamecocks guard Raven Johnson (25) dribbles the ball as center Kamilla Cardoso trails against the Iowa Hawkeyes during the 2024 NCAA Tournament championship game.

The list goes on and on and on.

It’s impossible to name every coach, player, team and mascot that made new fans this spring. But we know they’ll all be back next season. For now, here are the 2024 women’s NCAA Tournament’s winners and losers.


The people who decided to invest in women’s basketball

We’re talking administrators, TV executives and people who paid absurd amounts for Final Four tickets.After decades of being pushed to the margins women’s sports are here, and they’re not going anywhere. The TV viewership numbers from Sunday are expected to deliver the same message they’ve been all tournament: Put women’s sports on TV, and people will watch − in droves.

As a result, schools and administrators are recognizing the value in pouring money into their women’s programs, and not just basketball. All of that helps drive demand, and leads to crazy prices on the secondary market. And all of it is good for the game at large.

It’s about time.

"When you're given an opportunity, women's sports thrives," Clark said. "When you continue to give them the platform, things like this are just going to continue to happen."

Kamilla Cardoso, South Carolina

Talk about redeeming yourself.

A month ago, most of the sports world was focused on Cardoso’s actions toward the end of the SEC tournament final, when a shoving match turned ugly and Cardoso was tossed. Cardoso sat out the first game of the NCAA Tournament, per ejection rules.

But that’s all in the past now, as the 6-foot-7 senior dominated the five NCAA Tournament games she played in over the last three weeks, especially her two at the Final Four. Cardoso scored 83 points and grabbed 54 rebounds in five games. After a dominant performance in the Final Four (38 points and 28 rebounds in just 53 minutes of play), Cardoso was named the Most Outstanding Player.

"I feel like I just wanted to get out there in this tournament and just play really well for my teammates, for my coaches, and to win the championship," Cardoso said. "So I think that's what I did."

We’d agree.

The next generation of superstars

The game, as you might have heard, is in good hands. JuJu Watkins, Hannah Hidalgo, Madison Booker, MiLaysia Fulwiley and others − don’t forget about Paige Bueckers either − have come along at the perfect time. Clark’s popularity has (finally) made women’s basketball appointment viewing, and all the players coming back next year who caught the attention of fans this tournament will have even bigger followings next year.

And Dawn Staley loves it.

"I just want our game to grow," she said. "I don't care if it's us. I don't care if it's Caitlin. I don't care if it's JuJu or Hannah. I just want our game to grow, no matter who it is.

"Because there's a lot of people out there growing our game, a lot of programs out there growing our game. We need to continue to uplift them as well as we take our game to the next level."

Tessa Johnson, South Carolina

JuJu Watkins and Hannah Hidalgo have been the headliners in the freshman class, only the fourth and fifth freshmen to be first-team All-Americans.

Tessa Johnson would like a word.

South Carolina’s freshman guard turned the title game into her coming-out party, leading the Gamecocks with 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Whenever Iowa made a run in the second half, Johnson was there to shut it down with a 3-pointer.

Even LeBron James took notice, posting “Tessa Johnson cooking!!” along with the chef emoji.

"I'm going to give Tessa Johnson her flowers," Raven Johnson said after the game. "She's always ready for the moments. When her number is called, she's always ready. Every shot she puts up, it goes in. Just what Tessa does.

"She wants to learn. She wants to grow,” Raven Johnson added. “When you're talking about freshmen, Tessa Johnson's name should definitely be in the conversation."

Consider her added to the chat.

Caitlin Clark, Iowa and the young players she inspires

She made women’s basketball cool for little girls and little boys on a level we’ve never seen before. Her impact will last years after she’s left Iowa City. Yeah, she lost the last game of her college career, at least according to the scoreboard. But she’s won over nearly everyone, and that’s a victory that will last a lifetime.

"It’s certainly been hard at times, to always be in the spotlight and have everybody’s eyeballs on you. I wouldn’t change it for the world. The positive and the negative," Clark said. "It’s been a lot of pressure but it’s been a lot of fun."


Officials and the controversial calls

As Rebecca Lobo said, she doesn’t want to talk about the refs.

We don't, either. And yet, here we are.

Officiating was a black eye for much of the women’s NCAA Tournament, from controversial calls at the end of big games to miscommunication with players about which rules would be applied and which wouldn’t, to not disclosing obvious conflicts of interest.

NCAA president Charlie Baker said Sunday before tipoff that the organization is "chasing a big initiative around officiating." We think we speak for everyone in women’s basketball when we say, that initiative cannot get here soon enough.

Anyone who doubted Raven Johnson

You know who you are − and so does she.

Johnson did not have a great shooting game, to be sure. She averages 8.1 points, but scored just three, shooting 1-of-11 from the field.

But she was crucial defensively, drawing the assignment of guarding Clark after the Iowa star went off for 18 points in the first quarter. Clark scored just 12 after the first period, connecting on 5-of-20 attempts.

"For Raven, I think it was psychologically helpful to be able to play Iowa and Caitlin," Staley said afterward. "As a player, you want to release certain things that have held you captive …. for her to actually lock in and play Caitlin the way we needed her to play her − we knew she was going to get her points. We wanted her to get her points in an inefficient way. Like I look at the stat sheet, it's beautiful.  If she's shooting 50 percent, we lose the basketball game."

The WNBA and marketing efforts

It continues to play second-fiddle to the college game, and even the most successful coach in NCAA tournament history agrees.

There’s been so much talk, rightfully so, of how many new fans Clark has brought to women’s basketball, an accomplishment she enjoys hearing about.

"I don't really get offended when people say ‘I never watched women's basketball before,’" Clark said. "I think, ‘one, you're a little late to the party, yes. But, two, that's cool.’ We're changing the game. We're attracting more people to it."

But will this momentum, led by Clark, LSU star Angel Reese and rising seniors like Paige Buckers, transfer to the pros? Lots of people are skeptical given the WNBA’s history of pushing its product.

"Hopefully this will change that narrative, but the WNBA is going to have to do a great job of marketing these guys. And the WNBA, I don't think, has done a great enough job of marketing their individual stars, for whatever reason, because there's been a lot of them," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who’s won 11 national titles and coached dozens of WNBA All-Stars. "It's a star-driven society that we live in. It's a celebrity-driven, star-driven, influencer-driven world that's been created."

Auriemma mentioned how helpful it is that individual stars like Clark will come in with their own giant followings. As Auriemma said, Clark and others “certainly they’ve laid the groundwork for it, 100%.” But at some point, the marketing executives have to step up, too.

Iowa’s bench production

Considering the Hawkeyes' bench got outscored 37-0 (seriously), it’s remarkable Iowa was in the game. The Gamecocks reserves were their usual spectacular selves, with guard Tessa Johnson going 7-of-11 from the field on her way to 19 points in 25 minutes.

South Carolina’s bench players combined to go 15-of-27, while Iowa’s reserves only took three shots, making none of them. Yikes.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: March Madness: Kamilla Cardoso, Caitlin Clark among biggest winners