Raven Johnson providing bench lift for No. 1 South Carolina

Redshirt freshman guard Raven Johnson ran the show Thursday night for No. 1 South Carolina inside the rowdy Memorial Coliseum.

From the game’s onset, Kentucky fans cheered after each Wildcat bucket and hounded the Gamecocks each time they turned the ball over.

But USC’s young maestro drowned out that noise and conducted a 95-point Gamecock offense.

“I don’t think the crowd really affected us,” Johnson said. “We know we’re the best team, so (it was) just coming out and playing our game.”

South Carolina’s 95-66 win didn’t come without some adversity. USC allowed a 16-0 run from the Wildcats that began late in the first quarter and leaked into the second.

Johnson’s play helped catalyze South Carolina’s own 16-0 run in the second quarter, giving USC a lead it would not relinquish the rest of the game. And she did so with her play on both ends of the court.

She finished with nine points, seven assists and three steals in 19 minutes off the bench.

Johnson often turned steals into layups, for herself and for teammates. In the halfcourt offense, there wasn’t an open Gamecock that she didn’t see, reaching the seven-assist mark for the third time this season.

As one of the team’s “energizers,” Johnson takes pride in finding ways to create offense for the Gamecocks. And in some instances, that begins with defense.

Defense is something Johnson “takes to heart,” and it’s beginning to materialize. Her mother often made her do drills as a child in which she had to catch tennis balls, she said, doing so to improve her instincts.

“So I think that’s where I get my quick hands,” Johnson said. “And then my speed, I always had speed.”

Johnson offered similar production in the win against Mississippi State on Sunday.

Against the Bulldogs, she racked up steals and either finished the plays herself or found teammates who knocked down shots on the break. She’s begun to make a habit out of these boosting performances off the bench, finishing that game in Starkville with seven points, five rebounds and two steals.

“She’s playing more like herself,” Staley said. “That’s not who she was a month ago. I think she’s understanding our personnel a little bit more. Just really comfortable, got a few games under her belt, and now I think she really understands how impactful she can be for our team.”

Johnson appeared in just two games last season as a true freshman before suffering a knee injury. She played with a knee brace for the first eight games of 2022-23 but hasn’t needed it since, and her comfort level has only increased.

“She’s a really, really good player,” senior guard Zia Cooke said. “I think game by game we’re gonna continue to see how great she really is.”

Johnson’s performance was highlighted by her fourth-quarter assist to sophomore guard Bree Hall. She stole the ball from the Wildcat ball handler, drove toward the basketb and briefly considered bringing the ball back out.

Johnson hadn’t missed any of her four shots on Thursday, so the Wildcats looked to prevent her from getting another coast-to-coast finish.

“Oh, they’re looking for me to score,” Johnson thought.

She took advantage by skipping the ball across the court with one hand to give Hall the easy finish.

Johnson’s electrifying play even caught the attention of Hall of Famer Sheryl Swoopes, who commended her performance on Twitter.

Johnson is the team’s assist-leader with 3.2 dimes per game. Though her youth may show itself at times, the increase in her comfortability and productivity has given USC a new dimension.

“Basketball doesn’t have an age to it, honestly,” she said. “If you can play, you can play. That’s how I feel.”

Jeremiah Holloway covers South Carolina women’s basketball and football for The State. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, he is from Greensboro, N.C. and an avid basketball fan. Holloway joined The State in August 2022.

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