Raven Johnson finds her comfort zone as South Carolina tries to complete a perfect season

By | March 30, 2024

ALBANY, NY – It’s Raven Johnson’s 21st birthday. The point guard from South Carolina is in the middle of a glam session on FaceTime with her coach, Dawn Staley. Johnson’s lips are lined with chocolate brown, covered in gloss. Her hair is long and blonde and perfectly curled at the ends. She wears a silver varsity-inspired jacket, a dark denim miniskirt, black platform boots and her signature ‘R’ chain.

On the other end of the phone, Staley gets her excited. But Johnson doesn’t need it. The birthday girl exudes confidence, and not just because it is her special day. Johnson radiates self-love and faith. She looks good, and she knows it.

You can also see Johnson’s confidence on the field. The way she leads South Carolina’s offense, how she directs her teammates and allows them to score.

But that wasn’t always there. Certainly not last year, says Johnson. But with Staley’s guidance and the guard’s persistence, the time has come.

Now Raven Johnson is ready to lead South Carolina to a title.

“You don’t have to be the best player there is,” Johnson said a few weeks after her birthday. “As long as you have faith, you can go a long way. If you believe in yourself, no one else can stop you.”

After an injury sidelined her for the 2021-2022 season, Johnson came off the bench in 2022-2023. This year she has been given a starting role and her stats have doubled across the board. She is averaging eight points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.1 steals per game. Johnson has also increased her three-point shooting percentage from 24.1% to 32.3%.

The sophomore is better in every way, but her assists-to-turnover ratio is what stands out. At 2.84, this is the seventh best mark in the country, and the best of all the remaining players in the tournament.

Raven Johnson made a huge 3-pointer in the final minute of the game to help seal South Carolina's victory over Indiana in the Sweet 16 Friday.  (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

Raven Johnson made a huge 3-pointer in the final minute of the game to help seal South Carolina’s victory over Indiana in the Sweet 16 Friday. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

Johnson’s maturation comes from an understanding of pace and strengthened chemistry with her teammates.

That starts with Kamilla Cardoso, who Johnson says is her “favorite target.” The two have been playing together since AAU.

“Going on to Kamilla is my bread and butter,” Johnson said.

The rest of the connections took time, but now Johnson knows where her shooters like to catch the ball, what blocks South Carolina’s favored posts, and how to play with guards like Te-Hina Paopao and MiLaysia Fulwiley.

“It’s about going from fast to slow and slow to fast,” Johnson said. “That and knowing my staff, building a connection and chemistry with all my teammates.”

Johnson also knows she doesn’t have to be a star. College basketball is littered with scoring point guards, players who look for a bucket first and a pass second. But that’s not what South Carolina needs. Six Gamecocks average more than nine points per game: Cardoso, Fulwiley, Paopao, Ashlyn Watkins, Chloe Kitts and Bree Hall. They need someone to set them up. They need a traditional point guard, and that’s Johnson.

“A true point guard is rare these days,” Johnson said. “But I think a point guard is someone who can trap others. You pay attention to your teammates and put them in good positions. Then you photograph when your time comes, when it is open to you.

In her team’s Sweet 16 win over Indiana on Friday, it came with three minutes left.

The Hoosiers cut the lead from 22 points to five. Johnson scored six points in 2:51 and had a key assist for Cardoso to close the game.

Three of those points came on a long-range bucket with 53 seconds left. A year ago, she might not have had the confidence to even take the photo. But on Saturday she was swinging it.

“I’m really proud of her,” Paopao said. “It’s a confidence thing with her, and I’m so glad she had the confidence to photograph that. When she gets into the rhythm, it’s lights out.”

Johnson has always been a willing passer, but she didn’t know what kind of point guard she was until she met Staley during the recruiting process. Even before Johnson signed with the Gamecocks, the coach began to fill her with confidence.

South Carolina point guard Raven Johnson (25) has improved significantly this season, and her chemistry with teammates is a big reason for that.  (Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports)South Carolina point guard Raven Johnson (25) has improved significantly this season, and her chemistry with teammates is a big reason for that.  (Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports)

South Carolina point guard Raven Johnson (25) has improved significantly this season, and her chemistry with teammates is a big reason for that. (Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports)

It was around that time that the comparisons started coming. Between the two, Johnson came to believe she could be an elite college point guard.

“Coach Staley always told me I was a great point guard,” Johnson said. “And then people told me I reminded them of Chelsea Gray. And I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ As if she belongs to the elite.”

After the season-ending injury early in the 2021-2022 season and last year’s tournament series that ended in the Final Four, Johnson’s confidence dipped. She remembers the hype South Carolina had leading up to the game with Iowa, and how those compliments turned to hatred once the Gamecocks were eliminated.

This season, she said in November, would be a “revenge season.” And so far, the point guard has lived up to that statement.

With Friday’s 79-75 win over Indiana, the Gamecocks are one win away from the Final Four. Two wins away from Johnson erasing last year’s memories. And three games back of South Carolina, which claims the program’s third title.

Johnson’s role is important in achieving that goal.

“If you look at a lot of teams that win a national championship, or teams that have a lot of success, they do it with a true point guard,” Johnson said.

And that’s what Johnson wants more than anything.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to win,” Johnson said. “I play against the five, I’m going to defend hard, guard the best player, whatever it takes.”

Sometimes that means facilitating. And other times it means hitting a big 3 to send South Carolina to the Elite Eight.

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