The buzzer rang, and the Ohio State women’s basketball team huddled together in excitement. Michigan walked off the court heads hung and disappointed by the result. They had lost the opportunity to make the Big Ten Tournament final for the first time in program history.
At that moment, then senior guard Akienreh Johnson thought her Michigan career was over. But due to a freshman year injury, Johnson was granted another year of eligibility for 2020-2021 and is back in Ann Arbor as a graduate student. After a summer full of individual workouts, Johnson is thrilled to get back to group training and make up for a year impacted by COVID-19.
“For me personally it’s been a little difficult just with the changes of schedules and the uncertainty,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to make the best of this whole situation.”
Despite being a reliable scorer and contributor since her freshman season, Johnson only became a regular starter last year as a senior. Averaging 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 31.8 minutes last season, she recorded two double-doubles against Purdue and Rutgers.
Last year, the Wolverines went 21-11. After a tough loss to Ohio State ruined its chances of a Big Ten Tournament championship, the NCAA halted all winter and spring sports in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Michigan and Johnson were both beginning to make strides, but didn’t have the opportunity to test their fate in the NCAA Tournament.
“We were making a run last year to have a good standing in the NCAA Tournament,” Johnson said. “We’re hoping to piggyback off of last year and hopefully finish this season on a good note and hopefully get a spot in the NCAA Tournament.”
The Wolverines have only recorded eight NCAA appearances, with four being in the last 10 years. It will take time for the team to get back in shape, but it’s already on the way
Michigan has been training for three weeks together. All of Michigan’s starters from last season will return this year, with Johnson joined by sophomore guard Maddie Nolan, junior guard Amy Dilk, junior forward Naz Hilman and senior forward Hailey Brown. Yet after a summer of isolation and individual workouts, the team must rebuild the chemistry it developed over the course of the last year.
“We just haven’t played together in so long and working out individually is just not the same as being with the team,” Johnson said. “We’ve all been putting in extra hours working out hard. We’re trying to get back to what we were last year.”
A team that has chemistry on and off will ultimately have success. And with all the players either living alone or with each other, the team is remaining healthy and limiting the risk of catching COVID-19. This camaraderie only strengthens the team.
“We all know how to play with each other,” Johnson said. “We all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses so it’s very comforting to know we have all five starters returning.”
Johnson is looking to build off last year’s personal successes as well. With so much time off in the spring and summer, she has had time to reflect on what she wants from her time at Michigan and how to be successful on the court — the Big Ten All-Defensive team spot is on her radar especially.
“I didn’t make that last year and that was a goal of mine,” Johnson said. “This year I’m going to be striving to make my name, make my mark and be seen in that aspect.”
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