January 21, 2011

The Gauchos' floor general

Jan. 21, 2011

By Ray Hacke
Auburn Journal Sports Correspondent

As a point guard, Emilie Johnson's duties on the basketball court mirror those of a football team's quarterback.

If the Del Oro High graduate is not scoring herself, her job is to orchestrate her team's offense so her teammates get in position to score and distribute the ball to them so they can. Johnson has done a solid job of both for UC Santa Barbara this season. An All-Big West Conference second-team selection last winter, the junior is leading the Gauchos in both scoring and assists for the second year in a row, averaging 12.1 points and 3.2 assists per game.

"Mentally, she has to juggle a variety of responsibilities," UCSB assistant coach Selena Ho said. "She not only has to put herself in position to screen out or act on our cut-action sequences in our offense, she has to know what everyone is doing. She has to know every single intricacy -- all our strengths and weaknesses -- to make it possible for us to score."

Just as quarterbacks are sometimes called "field generals," point guards are frequently referred to as "floor generals" because both jobs require leadership. That aspect of being a point guard has taken on renewed importance for Johnson this season, especially since the Gauchos missed out on the NCAA Tournament last season after Johnson helped them get there as a freshman.

"She's always been our hardest worker and a team-first young woman," UCSB head coach Lindsey Gottlieb said. "But we're trying to get her to lead more vocally, and that's been her biggest area of growth this year."

Johnson already does a solid job of leading by example as far as her conditioning and efforts to improve her game go, both in and outside of practice.

"She's always the first one in and the last one out," Ho said. "She always has a smile on her face, and she's always willing to put on the hard hat and go to work."

"I try to come out every day in practice and set the tone," Johnson said. "I'm constantly telling my teammates that we have to have a championship mentality. If we take care of the details in practice, it will carry over to our games."

The fact that Johnson is verbally communicating that message to her teammates is what currently thrills her coaches the most.

"Emilie's not the most vocal person by nature," Ho said. "But she's getting better at pushing them as hard as she pushes herself."

"She knows now that at some point she can't look around the room and expect someone else to say it," Gottlieb said. "It's not a screaming-and-yelling thing, but in the locker room she takes it upon herself to say what needs to be said because she knows her teammates are looking to her for leadership."

UCSB freshman Nicole Nesbit says she's already learned a lot from Johnson about how to play point guard at the Division I level -- both from playing side-by-side with her and from watching film.

"Watching Emilie's poise on the court gives me something to work with," Nesbit said. "Watching her has really helped me.

"She knows how to create her shot and get people open. Her decision-making is way up there compared to me -- I make a lot of silly mistakes. On defense, Emilie really knows how to use her hands, while I just dance around. I really hope to learn from her."

Johnson will have a former Del Oro teammate to tutor next year -- the Golden Eagles' current guard, Madeline Campbell.

"I'm really excited," Johnson said. "I'll have a friend and former teammate to play college basketball with my senior year."

A psychology major who is minoring in health and exercise science, Johnson eventually hopes to play professional basketball overseas. If that doesn't work out, she's interested in pursuing a career in coaching or sports medicine.

In the short term, however, Johnson hopes to help UCSB (9-8, 3-2 Big West) break out of a three-way tie for third place in the Big West Conference and return to the NCAA Tournament.

"It doesn't fall entirely on Emilie's shoulders by any means," Gottlieb said. "That said, she puts a good deal of pressure on herself to help us win."

"You get an Emilie Johnson once in a lifetime," Ho said. "She's everything you could want in an athlete, everything you could want in a student, everything you could want in a leader, and you get all three in Emilie Johnson. She's someone that really deserves the best, and she's going to get the most out of this experience because she demands it of herself and her teammates."