Akienreh Johnson’s statement against Rutgers
When senior forward Kayla Robbins went down with a season-ending ACL injury last week, it was clear who the Michigan women’s basketball team needed to step up — Akienreh Johnson.
The senior guard came into the season expected to be what Robbins was — the scoring compliment to sophomore forward Naz Hillmon, the player that opened up the inside for Hillmon and, when Hillmon had an off night, the leader that carried the Wolverines to a victory.
In Sunday’s 71-57 victory over Rutgers, Johnson was all of those things for Michigan and more. She scored a career-high 24 points with 11 rebounds, her first ever double-double. No matter what the Scarlet Knights tried, she breezed through their defense.
“You don’t have to run a play for her, but she’s going to go get the offensive rebound or she’s going to make the right read, the right cut, the right slash to get the ball,” Hillmon said. “Like (Johnson) said, the ball finds energy, and I think (Johnson) does a really good job of that and I think coach (Kim Barnes Arico) knows that. That’s why she puts her on the opposite side, so she can slash, she can cut.”
Even after a couple of missed layups under the rim to start the game, Johnson nailed the team’s first field goal after slipping through the defense and catching an inbound pass, immediately going up for the shot.
It was the start of a big night for Johnson, giving her the confidence and energy to continue to make those slashes and cuts Robbins normally would.
“I just get the ball and like I said with my steals, defensive rebounds, offensive rebounds and once I get those, I start feeling my shots,” Johnson said. “We didn’t really change anything for me, but I think my teammates started to look for me more that I started scoring more.”
Atop the 3-point arc late in the first quarter, Johnson stared down a defense that left her alone. She made a motion towards the basket as if to shoot, and, when the defense didn’t move, she accepted their dare.
“In practice, I’ve been working a lot on my outside threat and slashing in the midpoint and working on my threes,” Johnson said. “So when I caught the ball, nobody came to me, and I gave them a second, nobody came to me again. I was like well, any basketball player in the world will shoot this shot, and if I miss it (Hillmon) and (junior forward Hailey Brown) are down there to get the rebounds, so I just shot it and it went in.”
That 3-pointer set the stage for a very different look in the third quarter, when Rutgers’ defense was suffocating, and it seemed like maybe, just maybe, the game wasn’t over. Barely getting the ball out of the corner, three quick passes traveled the entire front court in a fraction of a second, where Johnson waited. The result, a quick 3-pointer, showed the Scarlet Knights the game was, in fact, over.
And, in the first quarter, Johnson turned the tables in a completely different way.
The game was still tight and neither team had hit its stride offensively, and Johnson sparked a huge momentum boost for the Wolverines. After junior forward Hailey Brown hit a three to take their first lead of the game, Rutgers came down looking for an answer.
Johnson, though, had other ideas. Intercepting a pass and running down the court on a fast break, side-by-side with sophomore guard Amy Dilk, Johnson fed Dilk in behind the defense, who fought through contact for the layup and an and-one.
Déjà vu struck Rutgers ten minutes later when Johnson did the exact same thing — only this time, she took the layup and the and-one herself.
Her defense fed her offense, again.
“I think a couple years ago, when she first came back (from injury), she was able to defend, and then she came back and she was moving without the ball so exceptionally well,” Barnes Arico said. “Then she was rebounding. Then she was scoring.
“Now as a senior, I think she has put all of those things together, and has been really healthy and playing with a lot of confidence, and her mental part of the game has been at the highest level it’s ever been.”