On Sunday, the Michigan women’s basketball team desperately needed a win against Rutgers to get its season back on track. Putting up a career-high 24 points and 11 rebounds, senior guard Akienreh Johnson stepped up with her first career double-double to help the Wolverines win, 71-57. Her performance was even more crucial with senior forward Kayla Robbins out with a torn ACL.

But equally important to her performance on the court has been her emergence as a leader. It’s something she’s had to do all season, but now that Robbins is out, she’s the only healthy senior on the team — thrust into a much higher-pressure situation. 

She answered the call. 

“That’s the first thing I thought about (after Robbins’ injury) when we got back to Ann Arbor, is like, ‘How am I going to lead this team without my partner in crime? ” Johnson said last week. “We’re still roommates, we’re still going to do that, but it’s just going to be difficult without an experienced person and that’s part of the worker she is. She’s just not going to be on the court. So my leadership role is definitely going to have to change.”

That change was clear Sunday. With three freshmen — guards Maddie Nolan and Michelle Sidor, and center Izabel Varejão — all seeing meaningful minutes, Johnson was much more vocal on the court than she has been in the past. When her teammates made shots, she was the first to congratulate them. When they missed shots, she was there to pick them up. 

But even more telling of her leadership capabilities: She publicly called on them to step up. 

“(My role) is going to have to change, but also everybody else,” Johnson said. “(Sophomore forward Naz Hillmon) is going to have to step up, be a more vocal leader. Amy (Dilk) is going to have to step up. I think Danielle (Rauch) did a great job during that game of being a vocal leader … I’m only one person, and it’s just not going to get done with just one person being a leader on the court.”

Hillmon will be looking to answer that call. Though she’s only a sophomore, her role as the team’s leading scorer means she’ll need to mature as a player more quickly than her teammates. 

On Sunday, she led by example. Beyond her usual scoring — she scored 20 points, 3.9 more than her season average — she added 12 rebounds. On defense, she anchored a 2-3 zone that helped force the Scarlet Knights into 17 turnovers.

“I think that I’m still coming into that role, just trying to make sure I’m focusing on myself, make sure I’m focused in,” Hillmon said. “Because I can’t really tell other people to do stuff that I’m not already locked in on. … Trying to talk as much as I can, especially when we’re in zone. I mean the top of the zone doesn’t know what’s going on half the time and just trying to be in those huddles, being a positive energy.”

It’ll be a process for both Johnson and Hillmon to adapt to their new roles. Both of them have stressed they’re going to lead their own way — they won’t try to be Kayla Robbins. 

Against Rutgers, they showed that they don’t have to be.

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