March 7, 2011
By MARK PATTON, NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER
Emilie Johnson's knee ached, but something hurt even worse.
UCSB's soft-spoken point guard visibly squirmed as she sat through the last 32 minutes of a 33-point basketball defeat at UC Riverside seven weeks ago.
"That was very humbling, that game," she recalled.
The opposing coach from UC Davis had called Johnson "a miracle" at the end of last season for an intensity that never wavered in her 1,191 minutes of action -- a staggering average of 37.2 per game. But she also struggled to shift into idle during those 32 minutes of inaction at Riverside.
"She's so sensitive, in a good way, that we really had to explain why we weren't playing her at the end of that game," coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "It's a youthful sort of simplicity.
"She's that Jimmy Chitwood of Hoosiers, who wants it to be right -- and right now -- and we had to tell her, 'Em, let's look at the bigger picture: Being right right now might be to get you off that knee a bit."
Johnson, now rested and healed, has averaged 19.8 points for the last eight games, seven of which have been victories. She surpassed the benchmark of 1,000 career points by scoring 27 in UCSB's last game against Northridge.
It's given the streaking Gauchos (18-10, 11-4 Big West Conference) a shot at a co-championship in today's regular-season finale at first-place Cal Poly.
"This is what college basketball is all about," she said. "It's such a great opportunity to be a part of something like this."
But it's the same way Johnson has approached basketball ever since she put her soccer ball away for good in the sixth grade. It intensified just three years later when she vowed to become a Gaucho after attending a UCSB camp.
She even felt that way after last year's 15-17 season.
"I just don't know any other way to go about it, because this game is a gift," Johnson said.
And there is no down time for the 5-foot-6 junior.
"Baylor had an unbelievable game the other day, and we texted back and forth about it," Gottlieb said. "I ordered the game online so I could break it down and show her some clips."
Johnson has been a highlight reel the last eight games while improving her team-high averages to 13.8 points and 3.1 assists per game. She's made 50 percent of her 3-point attempts (28-for-56) during that stretch.
Johnson started all 32 games last season, leading UCSB with averages of 13.8 points and 3.3 assists. But the 17 defeats -- the first losing season of her career -- was a more important number.
"Cutting down the nets two years ago stuck with me, just the significance of winning a championship your freshman year," she said. "But it's more about the whole journey.
"Winning my freshman year was neat, but losing last year had an impact too, really. That was hard, but it motivated us to be even better this year."
Gottlieb estimates that Johnson has taken at least 15,000 shots in the Thunderdome since her arrival from Loomis' Del Oro High three years ago.
"I expect every shot that leaves her hands to go into the basket because she's taken so many here," she said. "She's the kind of kid that you have to make take a day off to rest."
A shortage of ball handlers prevented UCSB's coach from resting Johnson much last year. She led the Big West with a playing-time average of 37.2 minutes per game, but she also hit a wall after playing all 40 minutes of a defeat to UC Davis in the Big West semifinals.
Her passes (eight turnovers) and shots (11 misses in 14 attempts) also hit the wall.
"If I had a little more energy," Johnson said afterward, "I'd want to get into the gym tomorrow."
The defeat spurred on her spring workouts and even prompted her to attend Jackie Stiles' swimmer basketball camp in Oregon.
"The No. 1 scorer in NCAA history is a good one to learn from," she said. "It was a great experience, learning about her mentality and her approach every day to become the best."
Johnson did struggle through an early four-game stretch this year when she shot just 9-for-50 from the 3-point line. The Gauchos lost three of those games.
"She put some pressure on herself, thinking, 'Oh my gosh, is it going to be like last year?' " Gottlieb said.
"We were watching film the other day and I was just looking at everybody setting screens and Nic passing really well," Johnson said. "I was like, 'Wow! That's why I can shoot better, because I have so much more time to shoot.' "
Nesbit has become a force off the bench of late, averaging 11 points and three assists in the last five games.
"Nicole's ability to break people down off the dribble keeps teams from focusing just on Emilie on the perimeter," Gottlieb said. "And Mekia (Valentine) has been making people pay when they pressure our guards, and is passing better out of double-teams.
"They have to pick their poison a little bit."
The two Johnsons, Emilie and Margaret, are the only players who remain from UCSB's 2009 championship team. But becoming a vocal, Auntie Em to the youngsters has been the toughest transition of all for her.
"I try, I try," Johnson said, laughing as she glanced over at Gottlieb. "I was never the most verbal person on the court or off the court.
"The coaching staff has really challenged me to get out of that comfort zone."
But her speech at a recent Living Scholars banquet spoke volumes about how far she's come.
"She was amazing," Gottlieb said. "Her freshman year, I couldn't get her to call out a play loud enough so anyone could hear it.
"It's been unbelievable to see her grow into -- and I sound like a parent -- just an incredible young woman."
Even after being made to sit in the corner for 32 minutes.
Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org