La Velle E. Neal III
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Not all of Tessa Johnson's local supporters could be in Cleveland to watch her win another title, so they headed for the St. Michael Cinema on Sunday for a women's championship game viewing party. There, just off I-94, about 125 fans settled in to watch Iowa and South Carolina, with their favorite freshman from St. Michael-Albertville High, fight for the NCAA basketball title.

"There might have been 10 or 12 Iowa fans sprinkled in there," STMA activities director Keith Cornell said. "But there were young people wearing STMA jerseys and just a variety of people and a ton of excitement."

It took a few minutes for Johnson to make an impact in the game, but once she got going Sunday afternoon, she had LeBron James praising her on social media and Stephen A. Smith gushing over her on ESPN while sending her alma mater into rapture.

The freshman scored 19 points, a career high, to help the Gamecocks (38-0) cap an undefeated season. Johnson became the first freshman since UConn's Breanna Stewart to lead her team in scoring in a championship game. She had only two points through the first quarter but was the closer as South Carolina rallied in the third and pulled away in the fourth, winning 87-75.

At the theater, voices grew louder and louder as her quick release led to made jumpers and three-pointers.

"Kids, parents, grandparents, casual fans, alumni," said STMA coach Kent Hamre, who has known Johnson since she was in second grade. "A lot of people there cheering her on."

Johnson wasn't available to comment on Monday. But she responded to a text from Hamre following the game, promising to get back to him once "everything slows down." Who can blame her? She's in post-championship euphoria.

Hamre has received congratulatory calls and messages from colleagues ever since. He's fielding interview requests from local media as well as Columbia (S.C.) media, a group that is now trying to come up with a nickname for Johnson. The school's position is to embrace it all. About 28,000 folks live in the STMA community, so they view this as a promotional opportunity.

"Unfortunately or fortunately, this puts my face in front of some of this stuff locally," Hamre said, "and I'm loving it."

As a senior at STMA, Johnson scored 27 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and added seven assists to help the Knights hold off Hopkins 71-70 for the 4A title. A year later, she went from toppling Hopkins to the Hawkeyes. A masterful matriculation.

This isn't just a proud moment for St. Michael-Albertville. The championship game revealed to the nation what many of us knew for years, that this is a great region for girls basketball.

Two local players — Johnson and Paige Bueckers — and two players from neighboring Iowa — Caitlin Clark and Hannah Stuelke — were named to the all-tournament team. Bueckers' UConn Huskies and Clark's Hawkeyes provided a clash of the titans moment in the semifinals. But it was Johnson's Gamecocks who cracked the Caitlin code on the way to an undefeated season. An audience of 18.7 million viewers — the most-watched basketball game, men's or women's, college or pro, since 2019 — saw the best this region has to offer.

At the end of a tournament that could be a seminal moment in the popularity of the game, a Minnesotan shared in the ultimate prize.

Nearly 40 players from Minnesota were on rosters at the start of the tournament. That's a lot of top talent. And that bodes well for the future of Gophers basketball if coach Dawn Plitzuweit can keep a few of these players home in the future. I know, that's an NIL question.

Some players, like Johnson, will opt to test themselves at the country's top programs. On Sunday, she passed that test with aplomb. It's the biggest achievement by a STMA athlete since Matt Spaeth won a Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009.

"Everyone is on a high with Tessa as it was with Matt," Cornell said.

And it's an achievement that won't be forgotten anytime soon.

"One of the guys at the viewing party has a son and a daughter," Cornell said. "He said, 'Well, if you want to know what the Tessa Johnson effect was, we got home from the movie theater and they walked outside and started shooting baskets in the rain.'"