South Carolina Gamecocks are the 2024 Women's National Champions

In a historic outing, the South Carolina Gamecocks defeated the Iowa Hawkeyes 87-75 to capture the NCAA Women's Championship. South Carolina dominated in every way, from bench points to rebounds and defense. Iowa simply could not match their prolific three-pointer shooting and size.

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One year ago, Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes knocked off South Carolina, ruining their perfect season in the Final Four. This time around, the Gamecocks were crowned champions, finishing a perfect 38-0 to finish out the season. Led by head coach Dawn Staley, the Gamecocks cruised into the history books on Sunday. For Gamecocks sophomore guard Raven Johnson, she got the last laugh.

Defeating Iowa 87-75, the Gamecocks are just the 10th team in Women's NCAA history to finish with a perfect season. As for Dawn Staley, she's built a dynasty in her tenure as head coach of South Carolina. Since taking over for Susan Walvius in 2008-2009, she's led the Gamecocks to three national championships. What's even more impressive is the fact she's captivated three trophies over the last seven seasons. Over the last decade, she's coached 10 WNBA first-round picks, soon to be 11.

Heading into the biggest game of the year, Staley was in attendance for the UConn vs. Iowa game. She had the perfect plan all along on how to perfectly utilize every single player on her roster. She figured out a way to stop the most prolific scorer in NCAA history, Caitlin Clark, which speaks volumes in itself. In a highly anticipated matchup, Staley brilliantly mapped out her masterful scheme to attack the Hawkeyes on the boards and utilize depth and size to crush them.

Although the 2022-2023 squad finished with a 36-1 record, it was a tough task to fill those shoes in the offseason.

Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks made history

Not only did South Carolina finish their first undefeated season in program history, but Staley is the first black Division 1 basketball coach, men's or women's, to lead her team to a perfect season. In doing so, Staley fully reconstructed her roster after losing all five of her starters--Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Laeticia Amihere, and Victaria Saxton to the 2023 WNBA Draft.

Johnson was the subject of several memes and viral highlights after she was disrespected in their last matchup. In last year's Final Four, Clark waved off Johnson, leaving her wide open at the three-point line. While Johnson had the opportunity to shoot the trey ball, she passed up the rock. After that matchup, Johnson confessed to watching the film over 100 times.

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One year removed from the March Madness tournament, Johnson found herself as the primary lockdown defender on Caitlin Clark, Although Johnson struggled on the offensive end, she was tasked with guarding the Iowa sensation. Clark shot just 5-21 from the field when defended by Johnson. After she finished with 18 first-half points, coach Staley called for a change. She switched out Bree Hall on Clark, for Johnson. A menace on the defensive front, Johnson finished with four steals and two blocks. She understood her assignment, which was arguably the hardest task of anyone on the team.

Before the game, Johnson had a simple game plan in mind, "don't let her [Clark] score." She took the loss personally last year and had some words about her defensive approach:

"I was ready for the moment and take defense very hard, said Raven Johnson. "I studied her moves[ Caitlin Clark], and I was ready--I had confidence this year, and I was telling myself last year wasn't going to happen again."

Caitlin Clark was smothered by Raven Johnson

In the end, Clark couldn't lead her team to a National Championship, finishing with 30 points, eight rebounds, and five assists, on 10-28 shooting from the floor. Falling to win a championship for the second consecutive year, let's not take away from coach Lisa Bluder and the exceptional work she's put into the Iowa program. While Clark headlined the entire season, it was the story of her teammates, and her friends, that made the Iowa program so great. Sophomore Hannah Stuelke who's a rising star, had 11 points, three rebounds, two assists, and two blocks in the championship game.

With South Carolina chosen as heavy favorites entering the championship game, it was Iowa that held a 27-20 first-quarter lead. After an early 10-0 run, starting with a Kate Martin trey ball, the Hawkeyes looked untouchable and unbeatable. It wasn't until Te-Hina Paopao's three-point jumper that sent South Carolina in front with 27 seconds left in the second quarter. After commanding a 49-47 first-half lead, the Gamecocks never looked back. Paopao, who transferred to South Carolina for this very moment, finished with 14 points, on 75 percent three-point shooting. She announced her return to Columbia for next season.

Kamilla Cardoso had a career night on the boards

With defensive player of the year Kamilla Cardoso the anchor for South Carolina, it was the bench that grabbed the spotlight. Having one of the deepest rosters in the nation, the bench added 37 points for Staley and the Gamecocks. While the scoring was evenly distributed throughout the 10-player roster, it was the freshman who shined through.

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Minnesota native Tessa Johnson was recruited by Staley to produce off the bench in her first season. A 6'1 guard, Johnson had a season average of 6.6 points, 1.7 rebounds, and 1.1 assists. In 35 games played, she earned the starting nod just two times for Staley and the Gamecocks. Although her minutes and scoring remained inconsistent for a great part of the season, Johnson has been a staple for the Staleys stay-ready group off the bench.

However, it's clear the freshman guard was recruited for a reason, and eventually earned coach Staley's trust. As the NCAA tournament progressed, so did her contributions to the team. After a season-high 30 minutes played against Presbyterian in the first round, the former McDonalds All-American continued to show why she's such a valuable asset to this squad. She finished with a combined 26 points against UNC in the Sweet 16, and Oregon State, in the Elite Eight. The trust was there for Johnson to earn 25 minutes of playing time against Iowa, and she shined in the biggest stage.

South Carolina's freshmen stole the show

And what a career night it was for Tessa Johnson. In front of the entire nation, and 18.9 million viewers, the freshman put up a career-high 19 points on 7-11 (63.6 percent) from the floor, and 3-6 (50 percent) from beyond the arc. Let's call it the "Tessa Johnson effect." In transition, or inside, Johnson was a bucket.

For Dawn Staley, her rotations were set for this matchup. While Iowa's bench didn't produce a single point, the Gamecocks capitalized on that. For freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley, she proved why she's the next generational talent. At 5'10, she possesses the quickness, speed, and finesse that no other athlete has proven in the game. In 18 minutes, she added nine points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and one block.

Overall, all of Staley's players had a crucial role in the Championship game. Running double bigs with Cardoso and Chloe Kitts was brilliant, as Iowa was a bit undersized. Ashlyn Watkins, Sania Feagin--everyone had a piece of the pie. It was the overall collaborative effort that impressed me the most. While it's normal for coaches to shorten their rotations during championship moments, Staley put the nation on full display who in fact plays for her.

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As for Kamilla Cardoso, she certainly increased her draft stock on Sunday. Declaring for the 2024 WNBA Draft as a senior, center shined, even while battling an injury. It was in the Final Four matchup, where she injured her knee against NC State. Although she received treatment, Cardoso made sure the injury didn't stop her from competing in the biggest moment.

South Carolina Gamecocks were too powerful in depth and size

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The bottom line, the Iowa Hawkeyes weren't able to match South Carolina's size, especially with Cardoso listed as 6'7. Cardoso has been a problem the entire season for opponents and showed exactly why in the title game. Although Staley managed her minutes to perfection, Cardoso finished with 15 points and a career-high 17 rebounds. While 10 of those came on the defensive end, seven helped the Gamecocks control the offensive boards and second-chance opportunities. South Carolina ultimately obliterated Iowa on the boards, 51-29.

Cardoso, named Most Outstanding Player, put it all on the floor in her last collegiate game. Adding three blocks and two assists, the Brazil native was simply getting it done on both ends of the floor. When Iowa continued to drive inside, Cardoso was there to lock it up. With several and one opportunities, not even Iowa standout Hannah Stuelke could stop her. Outscoring Iowa 48-32 in the paint, Chloe Kitts poured in a double-double as well, with 11 points, and 10 rebounds.

Sunday was the ultimate matchup between the most outstanding offensive in the nation (Iowa) vs. the top defense (South Carolina).

After the game, the tears were flowing for coach Staley. In a post-game interview with Holly Rowe, Staley stated "We serve an unbelievable god," before breaking down in tears. With all of the hard work she's put into the program, it's always been her relationship with her faith and God that's made all things possible this season.

Hats off to both teams. No matter what the outcome, the growth of both teams has shaped the future of women's basketball for years to come.

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Sara Jane Gamelli is a full-time Sportswriter, Content Creator and Social Media Manager for Ballislife Bets. She has a focus on the NBA, WNBA, NCAA Basketball, and the NFL. Sara Jane currently resides in Connecticut/NYC area with her Cat and Dog. SJ has her undergraduate degree from the University of Connecticut in Economics, with a minor in business administration.


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