Since we last checked in on them, the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks (9-0) have appeared mortal, gutting out tough tests from North Carolina, Duke and Utah rather running teams off the floor with 100-point performances.
While not as fun as high-flying affairs, the closer contests have provided more information about the mettle of this South Carolina team. In particular, we’ve learned that their resiliency comes from their starting backcourt: senior guard Te-Hina Paopao, junior guard Bree Hall and sophomore guard Raven Johnson.
It’s that trio that consistently has been on the court in tense moments, indicating head coach Dawn Staley’s trust and confidence in three to guide the still relatively-inexperienced Gamecocks to victory. And for good reason. Here’s more on the winning contributions of Paopao, Hall and Johnson.
The poise of Paopao
A few weeks ago, our Eric Nemchock evaluated Paopao’s WNBA prospects, highlighting how she “has held everything together” for the nation’s top-ranked team, both tangibly with her production and intangibly with her leadership.
Since then, Paopao’s status as the Gamecocks’ glue only has become more evident. Late in games, when a misstep or two could cause a team lacking experience in pressure-packed moments to fall apart, Paopao has prevented any such disintegration. In fact, she’s had the opposite effect, instead strengthening South Carolina’s station. When the Gamecocks have needed a late bucket, the ball is in her hands. And thus far, she’s made the right decisions, often calling her own number and draining clutch jumpers.
In South Carolina’s two tightest contests against North Carolina and Utah, Paopao played 37 and 35 minutes, respectively. She also hit three 3s in both of those games. Her effort to help South Carolina close out Utah not only earned her MVP honors for the game, but also SEC Player of the Week.
On this team teeming with talent, Staley doesn’t need eye-popping offensive production from Paopao; she just needs her senior point guard to produce when it matters most.
Do it all, Bree Hall
If Paopao is the Gamecocks’ glue, Bree Hall might be South Carolina’s security blanket. There’s a sense of safety, comfort and calm when she’s on the court. There’s a confidence that she’ll make the right play right when it’s most needed.
She’s established this role due to across the board improvement. Having never started a game before this season, Hall is a starter and closer for Staley, averaging a career-high 26.7 minutes per game, including playing at least 33 minutes in games against UNC, Duke and Utah. Hall also has experienced an uptick in her shooting efficiency, highlighted by a 37.8 percent mark from 3 on 4.1 attempts per game. Her 3-ball helped South Carolina escape Tobacco Road unscathed, as she went 3-for-4 from behind the arc at UNC and Duke. She also notched back-to-back career highs, with 13 points against the Tarheels and 15 against the Blue Devils.
In the final three minutes against the Utes, it was her activity, rather than shooting, that gave the Gamecocks the edge. She converted a tough layup, made the and-1 free throw and had the game-sealing score, in addition to grabbing a couple of key boards. In short, Hall’s done it all—and expect her to keep doing it all.
More raving about Raven
In our previous update about the Gamecocks, we emphasized Raven Johnson’s growth as a 3-pointer shooter, not only in terms of her conversion rate but also her sheer confidence. Since then, the improvement has sustained—and the confidence, rightfully, has increased. Johnson’s shooting better than 43 percent from 3 on 2.6 attempts per game. She’s now such a shooter that she has her own 3-point celebration. When she’s open in the corners, there’s the shot, the swish, the twirl and the kiss. Johnson also has utilized the growing threat of her 3-ball to find more success inside the arc, as her 2-point percentage has risen from 43.8 percent to 57.4 percent. For a guard, that’s excellent, putting her 15th among all SEC players.
Of course, Johnson’s more than just a shooter. She shares primary ball-handling duties with Paopao, leading the Gamecocks with 6.4 assists per game, a number that ranks second in the SEC and sixth nationally. She has great chemistry with senior big Kamilla Cardoso, lobbing early entry passes that allow Cardoso to score with ease. Johnson also makes plays on the other end, with her 2.8 steals per game ranking fifth in the conference.
She’s an all-round impact player, more than fulfilling the promise she arrived at South Carolina with as the second-rated recruit in the class of 2021 according to HoopGurlz. While an injury early in her freshman season slowed the start to her college career, Johnson has been empowered with an expanded opportunity, and she’s maximizing it. Quite possibly, her single-season improvement, more than all the other ways South Carolina has exceed expectations early in the 2023-24 season, has raised the Gamecocks’ ceiling.