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Raven Johnson finding her comfort zone while South Carolina tries to finish off perfect season

ALBANY, N.Y. — It’s Raven Johnson’s 21st birthday. The South Carolina point guard is mid-glam session, on FaceTime with her coach, Dawn Staley. Johnson’s lips are lined with chocolate brown, topped with gloss. Her hair is long and blonde, curled perfectly at the ends. She’s wearing a silver varsity-inspired jacket, dark denim mini-skirt, black platform boots and her signature “R” necklace.

On the other side of the phone, Staley hypes her up. But Johnson doesn’t need it. The birthday girl is radiating confidence, and not just because it’s her special day. Johnson exudes self-love and belief. She looks good, and she knows it.

You see Johnson’s confidence on the court, too. The way she commands South Carolina’s offense, how she directs her teammates, setting them up to score.

But that wasn’t always there. Certainly not last year, Johnson says. But with Staley’s guidance, and the guard’s persistence, it is now.

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

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

After an injury sidelined her in the 2021-22 season, Johnson came off the bench in 2022-23. This year, she’s stepped into a starting role, and her stats have doubled across the board. She’s averaging eight points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.1 steals per game. Johnson has also increased her 3-point shooting percentage from 24.1% to 32.3%.

The sophomore is better in every way, but her assist-to-turnover ratio is what stands out. At 2.84, it’s the seventh-best mark in the country, and the best of anyone left in the tournament.

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

Johnson’s maturation stems 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 played together since AAU.

“Passing 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, which block the South Carolina posts favor, and how to play in tandem with guards like Te-Hina Paopao and MiLaysia Fulwiley.

“It’s all about going from fast to slow and slow to fast,” Johnson said. “That and knowing my personnel, building a connection and chemistry with all of 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 a 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 to find these days,” Johnson said. “But I think a point guard is someone who can set up others. You look out for your teammates and put them in good positions. Then, you shoot when your time comes, when it’s open for you.”

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

The Hoosiers cut what was once a 22-point lead down to five. Johnson scored six points in 2:51, and had a key assist to Cardoso to help close out 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 shot. But on Saturday, she swished it.

“I’m really proud of her,” Paopao said. “It’s a confidence thing with her, and I’m so happy she had the confidence to shoot that. When she’s in rhythm, she’s lights out.”

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

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

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

“Coach Staley always used to tell me that I was a great point guard,” Johnson said. “And then people would tell me that I reminded them of Chelsea Gray. And I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ Like, she’s elite.”

After the season-ending injury early in the 2021-22 season, and last year’s tournament run that ended in the Final Four, Johnson’s confidence dipped. She remembers the hype South Carolina had heading into its matchup with Iowa, and how those compliments turned to hate once the Gamecocks were eliminated.

This season, she said in November, would be “revenge season.” And so far, the point guard has made good on that declaration.

With the 79-75 win over Indiana on Friday, the Gamecocks are one victory away from the Final Four. Two victories away from Johnson erasing the memories from last year. And three games away from South Carolina claiming the program’s third title.

Johnson’s role is important to reaching 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 anything it takes to win,” Johnson said. “I’ll play the five, I’ll get down and dirty on defense, 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.