Akienreh Johnson was sitting underneath the dryer in her hair salon when her phone rang. The name displayed on the screen was Kim Barnes Arico, Michigan’s coach. Immediately, she knew what the call was about — her petition to get a fifth year of eligibility from the NCAA had been granted.

Johnson toned down her excitement on that phone call because she was in public, but the news came after a turbulent five-day period in which the NCAA canceled the season and Johnson moved back to Toledo due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Despite constant reassurances from teammates and coaches, there was always a possibility that her career was over, just like that.

So when the news came that she would have another year and a chance to end her career on her terms, she was overjoyed.

The guard had petitioned the NCAA to get another year of eligibility after a freshman-year ACL injury cut her season short and subsequent injuries left her barely playing a full year. As a senior this past year, she captained the team and became a full-time starter.

“She showed her ability to do a little bit of everything for us this year,” Barnes Arico said. “She really affected the game in so many ways, whether that was her rebounding, her scoring, her defense, on any given night she was a statistical leader in one of our categories.”

Off the court, she became a leader. Her work ethic and determination drew respect from her teammates and, as other leaders on the team suffered through injuries, her leadership qualities became evident.

An additional year will allow her to develop that presence both on and off the court.

“I want to improve on using my height as more of an advantage on the offensive end,” Johnson said. “I use it a lot on the defensive end, I use my wingspan and my height. But on the offensive end, using it to elevate over smaller defenders, be able to post taller defenders up more often, things like that so I can be more of a three-dimensional scorer.”

Added Barnes Arico: “She’s going to continue to work on her ball-handling skills, I think that’s an area where she does a really good job of attacking the ball screens.”

As a leader, Johnson looks to better meld her on and off court presence.

At the beginning of the year, the turbulence of stepping into her new role slowed her down and led to inconsistencies in her play. But as the season progressed, she began to fill her roles as a captain and starter with ease, leading to stellar performances like shutting down Northwestern’s Lindsey Pulliam, one of the Big Ten’s most prolific shooting guards.

“She played with a lot of confidence, a lot of leadership and is just really starting to play at another level and that begins with her overall confidence,” Barnes Arico said. “That’s really been only the first time in her career that she’s been truly healthy throughout the course of an entire season, so I’m really excited to see what next year is going to bring.”

Johnson’s return means that all five of the starters who ended the season will be back for a second year. Sophomore guard Danielle Rauch, who played sparingly over the latter part of the season due to a hand injury after starting three games earlier in the year, will also return. 

It sets up a team that will have the one thing it missed this year: experience. And, balanced with a plethora of talent, that gives Michigan the recipe to go into next season confident and dangerous.  

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