Under the bright lights of the national championship game, South Carolina freshman Tessa Johnson shined

Tessa Johnson became the first freshman since Breanna Stewart to lead her team in scoring in the NCAA national championship game.

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - National Championship

Tessa Johnson celebrates one of the three 3-pointers she made in South Carolina’s national championship game victory. Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Freshman Tessa Johnson had an up-and-down season for the South Carolina Gamecocks. There were games during the season in which she only played a handful of minutes, or was held scoreless altogether.

In the first game of the NCAA Tournament, she went 0-for-7 from the field. Heading into the national championship game, she averaged six points in 17 minutes for a loaded South Carolina roster, good for 9th most on the team.

But when the lights were the brightest—with a record-breaking 18.7 million people watching—Johnson was a superstar. In the national championship game against Iowa, she exploded for a team-high 19 points on 7-for-11 shooting.

Her pair of third quarter 3-pointers helped South Carolina pull away for good, and defeat an Iowa team that had already knocked off LSU and UConn.

In turn, she became the first freshman to lead her team in scoring in the national championship game since Breanna Stewart did it for UConn in 2013. In turn, she and the Gamecocks became national champions.

Tessa Johnson cooking!! ‍ — LeBron James (@KingJames) April 7, 2024

After the game, Johnson said:

I wanted to win. Our team, we want to win. My teammates are just encouraging, always having my back, telling me, “Play how you play.” So I just did that. I don’t feel pressure because the team that I have and the coaches that I have, no matter if I make a mistake, they’re always going to encourage me.

Johnson praised head coach Dawn Staley and the environment she’s fostered for helping her stay confident. South Carolina enjoyed a perfect 38-0 season—a feat that has only been accomplished 10 times in women’s basketball history.

A key to their success was a well-balanced attacked. South Carolina had nine players who averaged at least 6.5 points this season, and no player averaged more than 15 points.

On the flip side, Iowa had just four players averaging at least 6.5 points, and South Carolina’s depth was ultimately too much for the Hawkeyes to overcome. Led by Tessa Johnson, South Carolina’s bench exploded for 37 points in the championship game, whereas Iowa’s reserves were held scoreless.

Throughout the tournament, so much of the national dialogue centered around Caitlin Clark, UConn’s Paige Bueckers, USC’s JuJu Watkins and some of the nation’s most prominent scorers.

But when it was all said and done, it was South Carolina’s bench—a unit that had received relatively little air time—that ensured the Gamecocks would be hoisting the championship trophy.

“The culture that Coach Staley built, the atmosphere, the environment that we’re in—it’s all unselfish people,” Johnson said. “And that’s how we win.”
NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - National Championship
Raven Johnson and Tessa Johnson celebrate the Gamecocks’ national championship. Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Just a year ago as a senior in high school, Johnson led Minnesota’s Saint Michael Albertville High to a Class 4A state championship, putting up 27 points and grabbing 10 boards. She was named Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year, and was rated a four-star recruit by ESPN.

She watched South Carolina lose to Iowa in the Final Four from home, knowing she’d be joining the roster the following season. As a sharp shooter, she felt she could help the Gamecocks space the floor against an Iowa defense that collapsed on Aliyah Boston and South Carolina’s dominant post players.

“I was watching the game and I was like, ‘Wow, I really wish I could help them,’” Johnson said. “And the fact that I’m able to do that, it’s amazing.” On Sunday afternoon, Johnson hit 3-of-6 3-pointers to help turn an 11-point deficit into a 12-point win.

Her teammates praised her preparation. Raven Johnson, who was on the team that fell to Iowa in 2023 and was tasked with guarding Caitlin Clark in the national championship game, said Tessa Johnson’s name should be in the conversation of elite freshmen players. ”

She’s always ready for the moments,” Raven said. “When her number is called, she’s always ready.”

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