South Carolina's Raven Johnson turned memes into motivation. Now, she's ready for her moment

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CLEVELAND — Raven Johnson was certain she was quitting basketball. She knew that everyone would do what they could to stop her from doing this, but she couldn't find a way back for some time. Not from this.

She dreamed of what life would be like as just a student instead of a student-athlete. She has plans to become a lawyer. It's a difficult road. Maybe it would be better to just focus on school and internships. Maybe you'll be happier. Maybe if she told herself those lies enough, she would finally be convinced.

From her room on the University of South Carolina campus, quitting didn't feel like giving up, it felt like the only way she could get through everything that had happened.

The Gamecocks – the No. 1 seed and undefeated – had a shocking loss in last season's Final Four to Iowa. With the senior class having only lost eight games in total before that national semifinal, Johnson took it upon herself to make sure these senior players could finish their careers with a win and a national championship. So, when Iowa State won and handed it its ninth loss of the season in his career, Johnson felt entirely responsible. Didn't do enough to win them. You let everyone down.

“I feel like we lost that game,” Johnson said. “And to this day, I blame myself.”

But if that was the weight she felt on her shoulders, it was the video that brought her to her knees.

You know the video. Caitlin Clark dangles in the paint, waving to Johnson at the 3-point line. With no defender 10 feet away, Johnson doesn't even look at the basket. He doesn't even think about shooting or attempting offensive action. The repercussions that came from That video – Jokes and memes – hurt.

But the fatal blow was that Johnson didn't even recognize herself at that moment.

Who is that player? Not the girl who never lost a game at Georgia State as a high school student. … Not the confident guard who wanted to play for The Dawn Staley team at South Carolina. … Not a player who wanted to do everything she could to win for her teammates.

“He doesn't even look like me,” Johnson said.

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Her friends and teammates told her it would be over, and when they did, she lied and said she was fine. She didn't think about it anymore. Former Gamecocks forward Laeticia Amihere showed up with a Bible and asked Johnson to go with her to church. On a call with her mentor and manager, Justin Holland, as they were discussing her offseason plans, Johnson suddenly said, “I don't even care what they say online.” “And we weren't even talking about the Iowa incident,” Holland said.

After the title match, Johnson deleted all social media. A few days later, when she started thinking maybe she had made a turn for the better, she went to the grocery store only to have a shopper make a joke about that moment. I walked away from the groceries in the aisle and just left.

However, she still struggles to open up about it. Amihere called Johnson's mother, but in the conversations, Raven told her mother, Kia Johnson, the same lines: She's fine. Everything was fine.

But eventually the line became quiet, and Kia began to realize how far her daughter had fallen. It took a unique approach. Kia turned the tables on the situation.

“Honestly, I talked to her about Kaitlyn,” Kia said. “I said, 'Don't you think Caitlin is under pressure?' When she's not performing, don't you think she's as affected as the rest of you? I got it too. She is being bullied too.

Kia reminded her daughter of her rookie season, when she tore her anterior cruciate ligament just two games into the season and underwent months of rehab. Not only did Johnson need to lose the 30-plus pounds she had gained, she needed to learn how to walk again, and how to bend her knee again. Off the bench that season, she had a front-row seat in the Gamecocks' 2022 national title run.

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From something difficult and difficult, did you not also remember the good? Haven't you also seen the growth? Didn't she remember how long the road was when it was just beginning? If she could learn how to walk as a freshman, she could take that first step again now, right?

With Amihere's help, Johnson got back into the gym. She was invited to Kelsey Plum's Dawg Class, a gathering of some of the nation's top point guards, a week after the Final Four loss. Then she received an invitation to Team USA. In each of these settings, I spoke with other players who faced their own injuries and setbacks.

Through it all, she continued to watch tape of the Iowa-South Carolina game (she estimates she's watched the full 40 minutes more than 100 times). But instead of seeing her unrecognizable self and feeling ashamed, she began to feel something different.

“That put a chip on my shoulder,” Johnson said. “That lit my fire and forced me to get in the gym and work on my weakness.”

Yes, she needed to improve her three-point shooting. But the flaw that I hated the most was that there was a game tape where there was a player wearing No. 25 South Carolina uniform with Johnson's name on the back, but that player was not Raven.

She decided to spend her vacation in Colombia, and when Staley brought on Winston Gandy as an assistant, she began working with him on her own photography format. There were minor adjustments — her stance, a slight shift in her elbow position, getting more room for her palm — but mostly she just needed to spend time in the gym and weight room. Five days a week, she went to the gym to film. Not because of Which video, but because she wanted to get to know herself in every video.

“It's easy to hide behind the team's success, but you have to be ready for this moment,” Holland told her. “Your moment is coming. Be ready.”

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In the preseason following the departure of last season's seniors, Johnson assumed a leadership role — even though she was starting her second season in the redshirt as someone who had only started three career positions.

Staley consistently relies on Johnson the most. She's not necessarily expected to lead in scoring or any other statistical metric (although she is averaging 8 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds per game and has improved her 3-point shooting percentage to 37 percent over the year). But she is a player whose strength and consistency can serve as a guide to her teammates. Johnson leads the Gamecocks in minutes and has reliably made clutch plays when South Carolina needed them.

In the Gamecocks' Sweet 16 win over Indiana, Johnson scored a crucial 3 in the final minute that put the game out of reach for the Hoosiers. “I knew she wasn't going to let us lose,” Staley said. In the Final Four on Friday, she made 3 of 5 from beyond the arc. On Sunday, in the national title game, she will return to action against Clark and Iowa again. She's referred to the season as a revenge tour, but it's actually more like a reintroduction tour of her player persona — fierce, dominant, and a shooter.

“This video is the best thing that has ever happened to me,” Johnson said.

At that time, she wouldn't have thought of such a thing. But it also won't change any of it.

“Anything you love and are passionate about will make you question it at some point — and that's what you need to make your breakthrough,” Staley said. “And if you don't have enough strength and power, your breakthrough will never happen. Raven is going to be a great player because she was able to break through that moment and push it to the next level now.”

(Raven Johnson Image: Steve Chambers/Getty Images)

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