An hour before Wednesday’s game against Illinois, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico pulled Akienreh Johnson aside. The senior guard — after watching her best friend go down with an injury, the emotional leader of the team follow suit and the best player on the team battle through her own setbacks — had seen her responsibility on the team grow exponentially over the course of the last few weeks.
Barnes Arico wanted more from Johnson. Wanted her to take over the emotion on the team, to fight and inspire the rest of her teammates.
After the shootaround, Johnson did what she always did — meditate. For fifteen minutes, she went over what Barnes Arico told her, then the plays and her role. She ran over and over what she needed to do in her head, playing out every scenario that could happen in the game. What if she’s hot? What if she’s not? What does she need to do to make sure the team wins?
On Illinois’ first possession, both of Michigan’s bigs were pulled up to the top of the 3-point line, and the Fighting Illini point guard, Brandi Beasley, tried to lob a pass over the top of them — and would have connected for an easy two points, if not for Johnson. She sniffed it out before the pass even began, taking two steps and knocking down the pass.
“It’s not really about your length, it’s about how hard you’re going to play,” Johnson said. “But I’m not going to lie — my length really does help it out a little bit, gives me a little extra step to get back and get those tips.”
It was decided, then, that her game would be defensive.
Johnson racked up three steals in the first quarter, often times being the only thing between a hot Illini and a bucket.
While the Wolverines fought to keep in the game, Johnson took every opportunity she could to be the emotional boost they needed. Handing out high fives between plays, congratulating players on the tiniest thing, she did exactly what Barnes Arico needed her to.
“She’s stepped up to that challenge,” Barnes Arico said. “I think she understands what it takes to be successful and that’s playing with a certain type of intensity and a certain type of fire. It doesn’t mean just shooting the basketball and scoring a ton of points, but we need to establish ourselves with that kind of fire and energy.”
Added sophomore guard Amy Dilk: “She’s grown into a great, great leader, She has the ability to use her voice. It’s tough sometimes, when you’re in the motion of the game, and you’re thinking about 20 different things, you like lose your voice sometimes. … AK mastered that, and her voice on the court, she’s a great leader, she’s a great vocal leader.”
And then, despite it seemingly being another game where Johnson would, nearly single-handedly, limit the production of an opposing team, she did something that’s becoming more and more common for her: scoring.
Her seven first-quarter points led the team, and when it looked like it would be impossible to keep up with Illinois’ explosive shooting, she pump faked, sending a defender flying past her. Her second look clear, the ball soared in an arc from the corner, giving Michigan a big three and narrowing the deficit to five, in a game the Wolverines would eventually win, 80-59.
In the five games since sophomore guard Danielle Rauch’s injury — the team’s biggest emotional leader — Johnson has scored in double digits four times. She’s thrown up wild shots that fell despite all laws of physics. She’s made big 3-pointers when the team’s needed her to. She’s sparked easy transition buckets that shifted momentum with her steals.
As the season has progressed, Barnes Arico has asked more and more from the captain of her team. To lock down the most potent offensive threat in the conference, to replace the rebounds of the team’s second-best rebounder, to get better and better.
Every time, Johnson has met those expectations.