It was February and Akienreh Johnson was ready to let her frustration out into the open.
The sophomore guard had torn her ACL in the midst of the 2016-17 season, then was cleared in time for the start of her sophomore season. She had put in the work during practice and extra workouts. But she wasn’t seeing the results.
Johnson met with Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico not about playing time, but about finding a way to start seeing the returns on those hours.
“AK, you’re doing great,” she recalled being assured by Barnes Arico and assistant coach Melanie Moore. “Just keep working, like, your time will come.”
Cliches and platitudes aren’t always the most reassuring advice. There turned out to be some truth to them this time.
The door opened for Johnson the following week at the Breslin Center, in the midst of an upset loss to Michigan State. Freshman forward Hailey Brown went down with a leg injury and Johnson’s name was called as much out of necessity as want. Three days later, at Minnesota, she was in the rotation.
Johnson had played just 12 minutes in the previous six games, sitting on the bench for the duration of four. When she got on the floor during that span, it was a stream of errors — a turnover, a missed shot, a long walk back to the bench.
“Okay, I know I haven’t been playing but I have to make sure I know the plays,” Johnson said she told herself before the trip to Minneapolis. “Have to make sure I know multiple positions, have to make sure I was ready.”
Twenty six minutes and 19 points later, it was clear she had done at least that much.
As the Wolverines await a likely bid to the NCAA Tournament, Johnson has emerged seemingly out of nowhere as a go-to scorer. The contest against the Golden Gophers was the first sign.
After the game — a 93-87 loss for the Michigan women’s basketball team — Johnson’s teammates were impressed her output. She didn’t even realize how well she had played.
“All I know is that we lost,” Johnson said. “So after the game, my teammates told me, they said, ‘You know you had 19 points.’ And I was like, ‘Really?’ I thought I had like, seven or eight.”
With that, something clicked.
Johnson was already coming off a torn ACL when she came to Michigan, having suffered the same injury during her senior year at Rogers High School in Toledo, Ohio. When the same knee twisted the wrong way during an early morning practice in 2016, she didn’t even realize she had torn it again.
“I went like a week walking around on it thinking I was gonna come back to playing,” Johnson said. “Until I got my MRI.”
The second time around, Johnson’s rehab was longer than before, but she knew what was coming. When her knee didn’t bend, she knew it eventually would. When she still couldn’t walk, she knew she eventually would.
Even so, there were anxieties in returning. It took Johnson time to trust a knee that had twice suffered such a serious injury.
“I would like fall — and I’d be completely fine, like I wouldn’t be hurt — I would just fall,” Johnson said. “And I would have to sit out (of practice) because I was just nervous.”
With the sole exception of a midseason stretch filled mostly with non-conference blowouts, Johnson played sparingly. Whether she got on the floor for one minute or 20, though, her parents gave her feedback. If possible, Johnson would watch back the tape with them. If not, they’d watch it and give her feedback — constantly reminding Johnson of how far she’d come to be on the court at all.
“It’s like a really positive thing and they just wanna keep my head up,” Johnson said. “Because sometimes, you know, you get down on yourself if you don’t play.”
After taking off against Minnesota, Johnson has stayed in orbit. She played the hero on Senior Night, hitting a 3-point dagger against then-No. 13 Maryland to cap a 17-point performance, a shot she says she knew was going in before ever touching the ball. Johnson joked that night her success was because the Terrapins hadn’t included her on the scouting report. Penn State avoided that mistake and it didn’t matter.
At the Big Ten Tournament, the Nittany Lions’ players shouted “Right driver!” every time she touched the ball. Johnson scored 13 on 5-of-9 shooting in a blowout victory for the Wolverines anyway, driving whichever way she pleased.
Now, there are no more frustrations. Johnson has an easygoing demeanor about her as she sits in the Crisler Center’s media room after practice.
“I know that I can get to the basket either if they know what I’m gonna do or not,” she says. “… I know that I can score.”