Summer 2024

Freshman Tessa Johnson powers South Carolina to 3rd national title, believes 'God is able'

Sunday’s women’s college basketball national championship game was a chance for South Carolina’s returning players to avenge last season’s loss to Iowa in the Final Four. They completed the job with an 87-75 victory to cap off a perfect 38-0 season and capture the program’s third national title.

But it was a freshman who came off the bench and led the way.

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Tessa Johnson scored a career-high 19 points in just 24 minutes, knocking down three of her six 3-point attempts and only missing one shot inside the arc. It marked the third time Johnson reached double-figures in the NCAA Tournament (after she shot 0-for-7 in the opening round) and the first time in the tournament she made more than four field goals. She averaged just 6.2 points on the season.

After falling short last season, South Carolina lost all five starters. Few thought the Gamecocks could return to the Final Four, and it wasn’t a promising start Sunday when they fell to an early 10-0 deficit. But they recovered and took a 49-46 lead into halftime, then held Iowa’s dynamic offense to just 29 second-half points. They became the 10th undefeated national champion on the women’s side.

Led by Johnson, South Carolina’s bench outscored Iowa’s 37-0. Speaking to ESPN’s Holly Rowe after the game, Johnson explained that her confidence comes from the belief her coaches and teammates have in her.

“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, and they’re never going to let me give up on myself,” she said.

It’s actually the second championship in as many years for Johnson, who led St. Michael-Albertville to the Minnesota 4A state title last year. She was also a McDonald’s All-American and Minnesota’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2023, after she averaged 24.3 points as a senior.

That was a feat made more impressive considering Johnson as a sophomore broke her leg in such a fashion that her coach, Kent Hamre, compared it to the traumatic injury suffered by former Louisville player Kevin Ware. According to Hamre, Johnson’s faith in God was one of the main things that helped her process — and eventually recover from — the injury.

“I learned a lot from watching how she handled that injury,” Hamre told The State last year. “Sometimes people are, ‘Oh, poor me’ or ‘Why did this happen to me?’ … Never once. She just made it a, ‘Hey, this is God’s plan to make me a better person, to make me a better basketball player.'”

Johnson said in a 2021 interview with that her relationship with God was the primary thing that kept her going.

“The biggest part that kept me in it mentally was reading the Bible and talking to God,” she said. “The next biggest part was the people surrounding me and supporting me. Whether it was family, friends, coaches, teammates; they all played a huge part mentally.”

By the time Johnson was a senior at St. Michael-Albertville, she was a top-25 recruit. She discussed her college decision with KARE last year and revealed that prayer played a big role in it.

“I would pray about it all the time and just ask God to, like, help me through it,” she said. “And He did. But when I committed, a weight was just off my shoulders.”

The first three words in Johnson’s Instagram bio are a nice summary of her journey: “God is able.” She was averaging fewer than six points per game until the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight, but enjoyed two of her three highest-scoring games of the season in South Carolina’s final three contests. In the Gamecocks’ two games in the Final Four, Johnson contributed 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting and hit 50% of her 3-pointers.

Next season, Johnson and South Carolina have a chance to be the first team to repeat as national champions since UConn won four straight titles from 2013 to 2016, and the first team to have back-to-back perfect seasons since UConn in 2009 and 2010.

>> Do you know Christ personally? Learn how you can commit your life to Him. <<

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