How do you process winning it all? It’s a feeling most of us will never understand, nor experience: only the select few ever win championships, and when you’re playing for a program that’s synonymous with winning, the standard is even higher. For Gamecock standout Tessa Johnson, the then-freshman had heard all about how difficult it was to solidify a ‘chip from former players and even the coaching staff, nevertheless to do so after the team won the year prior. But after posting an undefeated season, holding their own in the 2024 NCAA tournament, they defeated Iowa to win their third title under the helm of legendary head coach Dawn Staley.

The epic showdown drew 18.9 million views, making it the most watched basketball game since 2019. The world saw not only how undeniably dominate the Gamecocks are, and have always been, but got a glimpse at just what to expect from the future of the game: with a talented roster that included a future first-round WNBA draft pick in Kamilla Cardoso, they were also equipped with a core group of freshman and sophomores, including Johnson, MiLaysia Fulwiley, Raven Johnson and Chloe Kitts, they could’ve easily faltered under the pressure. As Staley told us for the cover of SLAM 250, rather than having “balked” for minutes or playing time, they carried themselves with grace, were guided by veteran leadership and showed up every game with a can’t-lose mentality that, eventually, became a reality.

“It got harder every level in the competition,” Johnson told us in May, just a month after the title game. “We played Texas A&M twice, probably, and in the regular season, compared to in the SEC tournament,  that was a whole different team. So just, the competition, and the fact that everyone was either winning or done—I think the level of competition grew a lot it was way more physical. You had to be on your A game. The preparation is key and I think our coaches did a good job of mentally preparing us as well as physically preparing us. And also, the leaders on my team, the older people, they told us what to kind of expect. MiLaysia [and I], they told us just to play our game, forget the big stage or whatever.”

As the entire world watch Staley’s squad power their way through the NCAA tournament, the National Championship was the pinnacle of must-see TV. And when the lights were the brightest, Johnson, who played the most minutes (25) for a freshman, shined like the star that she is and led her squad with a career-high 19 points off the bench. To say that she was clutch would be an understatement, Johnson was pure perfection whenever the moment called upon her, which was quite often. In the second, she was out there knocking down silky-smooth midrange jumpers and finishing at the rim with ease, and by the third, she was dishing dimes to teammates like Bree Hall and hitting clutch threes that had everyone in Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on their feet.

Not only was she the most efficient on the floor, shooting 63 perfect from the field, but she was absolutely fearless.

Fearless is a word the Minnesota-native resonates with on an even deeper, spiritual level.

“Before the games, I pray because I play for God out there. Besides the fact that I play for South Carolina, my family and my teammates, I really play for God. I represent Him on the court and so I pray to just ease my mind, give me peace, and I pray for the other team, [too]. [For] no injuries and stuff like that. That calms me down when I get on the court. I was also thinking of the word fearless, because, when I was younger, I would play fearless. [I’d think], Why am I afraid to make mistakes? Like, everyone’s gonna make mistakes out there on the court.”

It’s a pregame practice that Johnson’s always had as part of her routine: during warm ups, she sits in the fourth chair from the end. The number four is a symbolic one for her: a four-star recruit, Johnson wore No. 4 throughout her high school career as a star at St. Michael-Albertville. It also reminds her of her sister, Rae, who rocked it as her jersey number while hoopin’ at Iowa State, and in the Bible, the number also represents the creative work of God, specifically in creating all of life in a four-day span.

“I just prayed [for] what I felt in my heart,” Johnson adds. “If I remember correctly, I was praying for guidance, for peace [and] for strength on the court.”

All season long, Johnson says her mindset was to just trust the process, especially given that she was new to the team and felt that she had a lot to learn in terms of comfortability on the hardwood. “I’m a beginner, I’m not as comfortable on the court, I haven’t played with them before, so just trust the process, trust my coaches, and trust myself out there. Because, at the end of the day, like I’ve worked, I don’t know how long, I don’t know how many years, but I’ve worked for it, and just to trust myself out there, and have confidence out there.”

Then there’s the trust that Staley had in her. Revered for being a “player’s coach,” Staley has credited her coaching style as wanting to be a “dream merchant” for young people. What she saw from Johnson, and others on the team, was just that: an unwavering confidence and willingness to learn and be guided. “Tessa [Johnson could’ve been like], I could play with the best of them. Let me get some of Breezy’s time. Let me get some of Raven’s time. [But] they didn’t,” she told WSLAM. “Actually, the youngsters just allowed the older players to guide them to the point where they were so confident entering the basketball game that they knew that they were going to make an impact.”

It’s that type of support that drew Johnson to South Carolina in the first place. Growing up, Johnson was always ultra competitive—her mom, Danielle, who was us in our office when Johnson stopped by for a photoshoot—admits that she’s always had a yearning to be the best.

“You always wanted to be a dawg,” she chimes in and says to Tessa during our interview. “The best at whatever they were doing. When you worked hard, you wanted to be the first one done with something. You wanted your journaling at school to be better than the other kids. Not in a bad way, but just that she wanted to always do her best.”

Despite having a bubbly, upbeat personality, plus a sense of humor that’s unmatched (go watch our latest video with her, the 6-0 guard is so charismatic on camera, she absolutely needs her own television show one day), Johnson’s ability to tap into that level of competitiveness whenever she’s on the court is part of what makes her a star on the hardwood. “I didn’t care what it was, I just wanted to do better than them. And then, after doing it, another competitive piece of me is, I want to do better than what I just did. So, like, always getting better every day is what motivates me.”

Johnson saw herself being able elevate her game to that level in Columbia. After averaging 6.6 points in her first year, she’s now focused on not just elevating her game physically this summer, but is even more focused on her mental health. It’s always served as a key component of her breakout success, even dating back to high school when she missed her sophomore season due a broken leg injury. Johnson returned as a junior and helped her team emerge as runner-up to the state title, and by her senior year, she led her squad to its first state title since ‘09, dropping a double-double in the championship game. “I feel more like, powerful out there because I went through that and I’m back now,” she told Kare11 News in 2022.

Even as an NCAA champion, Johnson feels like she can approve her mental approach even more. “Yes, I need to work on all my physical stuff and just my skills and fundamentals but I think basketball is a very mental game,” she says. “Me being able to overcome all my mistakes and just having a growth mindset and being able to listen to whoever’s trying to help me. I think that’s what I need to get better at.”

How exactly does she plan on going about that? “That’s a good question. Getting deeper into my faith,” she explains. “I think that always helps and that’s what I do every day. I try to build a better relationship with God. But, going about it, I think I just need to always take moments out of my day and just reflect on myself  and think of what I need to do better and what I have overcome in general because you have to think positive. I know for me sometimes that’s hard because I have such high expectations for myself. And so when I don’t reach it, I’m like, I just get a little negative with myself. Like, the fact that I want to be better than my yesterday self. That helps me.”

As for how life’s been since winning the ‘chip, Johnson admits she’s still processing. It was a legendary moment, one that’ll go down in not just women’s basketball—but all of college hoops—history, but that doesn’t mean that the grind is over. As the Gamecocks look to embark on the “Repeat Tour” for the 2024-25 season and run it back, they’ll have to bring that same energy and then some.

“[The recognition], it’s good, but then I’m thinking of next season because that’s what we have to do,” she says. “We can take all the moments and enjoy the moments. But now, we’re on to summer. And school is over, so we’re thinking of next season, just working out and getting better because teams are going to scout us harder and play us tighter. [They’ll] know more of the little things that we do. So, that’s kind of the mindset.”

Photos via Getty Images. Portraits by Evan Bernstein.


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