Tessa Time: South Carolina freshman guard sparks team in national championship win

As this year’s NCAA Tournament went on, South Carolina freshman guard Tessa Johnson made a name for herself filming video segments in which she’d ask light-hearted questions — Who’s your player comparison? Who’s your celebrity crush? — to her Gamecocks teammates.

The clips even earned a name: “Tea Time with Tessa.”

After No. 1 USC’s national championship win over No. 1 Iowa on Sunday afternoon, though, that title might need an update.

It was truly Tournament Time with Tessa in Cleveland, as the freshman guard from Minnesota came off the bench and scored a team-high 19 points Sunday for the Gamecocks as they toppled Caitlin Clark and the Hawkeyes, 87-75, to complete a perfect season at 38-0 and win their third national championship.

In a Final Four weekend loaded with individual talent, Johnson’s star shone bright — enough that she was the likely runner-up for the Final Four Most Outstanding Player trophy that went to her teammate, USC center Kamilla Cardoso, who had 15 points and 17 rebounds.

In her 25 minutes off the bench, Johnson shot 7 of 11 from the field and 3 of 6 on 3-pointers, even earning a mid-game social media shout-out from NBA legend LeBron James. She also had the second best plus-minus rating of any South Carolina player (+17) and spent a chunk of time as USC’s primary defender against Clark.

Instead of MOP, Johnson had to settle instead for a spot on the five-player all-Final Four team — not the worst consolation prize for a freshman who, according to USC coach Dawn Staley, not only battled injuries but lacked confidence at time during her first year of college basketball.

“She probably came into South Carolina thinking she wasn’t a good defender for one reason or another,” Staley told WLTX postgame. “But throughout this whole season, she just kept building her confidence up. … She said in a timeout tonight, ‘Let me guard her. Let me guard Caitlin.’ ”

Staley continued: “She did a great job. Played with so much bravado on both sides of the basketball. I don’t think we win without her contributions today.”

Tessa Johnson’s big day

Johnson was on Cloud Nine in the postgame locker room after coming out of nowhere — at least to ABC’s national audience — to deliver her career high in points (19) on a massive stage and secure the college national championship she’d been dreaming of winning for years.

“I don’t care about who scores,” Johnson said. “I care about winning. I can’t say this enough: The fact that I was able to do it with this team and these coaches and our fans — where I am right now, I couldn’t ask for anything else.”

Johnson, a four-star recruit who ranked No. 23 nationally in the Class of 2023 coming out of St. Michael-Albertville High School outside Minneapolis, had already been improving down the stretch for South Carolina after missing three early games with injury.

She poured in 15 points in 21 minutes against Oregon State in the Elite Eight and had played at least 20 minutes in all five of USC’s NCAA Tournament games entering Sunday.

After putting up a more modest nine points against N.C. State in the Final Four, Johnson came out unafraid against Iowa (34-5) and had nine points on seven shots as USC led 49-46 at the break. She had seven of those points in South Carolina’s dazzling 29-point second quarter (one point shy of the most by any team in any quarter of a championship game).

“Tessa was due for a breakout game. … She trusted her process here,” guard Te-Hina Paopao said. “She trusted her journey. And for her to do that on such a big stage, I’m so proud of her. Her confidence has grown so much. I’m just really excited for her future.”

Added fellow guard Raven Johnson: “She’s always ready for the moments. When her number is called, she’s always ready. Every shot she puts up, it goes in. … When you’re talking about freshmen (nationally), Tessa Johnson’s name should definitely be in the conversation.”

South Carolina’s Tessa Johnson (5) and MaLaysia Fulwiley (12) snag the ball from Iowa’s Kylie Feuerbach (4) during the National Championship game at the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio on Sunday April 7, 2024.
South Carolina’s Tessa Johnson (5) and MaLaysia Fulwiley (12) snag the ball from Iowa’s Kylie Feuerbach (4) during the National Championship game at the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio on Sunday April 7, 2024.

In the second half of USC’s win, all of Johnson’s buckets felt critical. Her 3-pointer to push the Gamecocks’ lead to 62-55 in the third quarter. Another late three, to put USC up 68-59 with 40 seconds to go in that period. A pull-up jumper for 70-59 in the fourth. Free throws to put USC up 78-70.

And some serious hardware as a result.

For Johnson — who watched South Carolina’s 2022 national championship win from the stands at Target Center in Minneapolis and found herself antsy during USC’s 2023 Final Four loss to Iowa last April, wishing she could provide the floor spacing and shooting last year’s team had desperately needed in that defeat — Sunday’s win meant “everything,” she said.

Johnson and fellow freshman guard MiLaysia Fulwiley (nine points) were both spark plugs off South Carolina’s bench (which had 37 points to Iowa’s zero bench points) and had fans excited about the future of USC women’s basketball. If that’s what they can do as freshmen, who knows what their ceiling is?

“But really I’d give (the credit) to my teammates,” Johnson said. “Without them telling us what to do and leading us and being our role models, we couldn’t do it without them.”

And Staley, she added, was the “best coach ever” for the way she embraced and helped develop Johnson through a rookie year that at times wasn’t easy.

But Johnson, who went from bench player to social media star to South Carolina’s unlikely Final Four hero, would indulge in one compliment postgame as she took in South Carolina’s third national title over the past seven years.

“Can we call you Tournament Tessa now?” a reporter asked.

Johnson laughed.

“Sure,” she said. “Go ahead.”