Team looking for leaders following suspensions as season approaches


She’s already lost her captaincy and the ability to play in the first nine games of the season, but Kiana Johnson said the darkest days of her run-in with the NCAA haven’t happened yet.

“I don’t think the toughest part has come yet,” Johnson said. “Nov. 1 will be the toughest part of this whole thing — the very first game I’m sitting out, that’ll be the toughest part for me.”

It’s an unusual situation for the MSU women’s basketball team, which will be forced to go without Johnson, a member of last season’s Big Ten All-Freshman team, along with redshirt freshman forward Akyah Taylor both were suspended for the first nine games of the 2012-13 season for a violation of NCAA guidelines “related to the receipt of extra benefits.”

Head coach Suzy Merchant said both players are eligible to practice with the team and play in exhibition games, but Merchant has decided they will be held out of the exhibition season as well, which begins Nov. 1 against Saginaw Valley.

“Right now, I’ve been fine,” Johnson said. “It’d be different if I couldn’t practice with the team, but since I can practice, I feel a part of the team; there are no games taking place yet, so I feel like it’s last year. … Just when Nov. 1 comes, I know I’m going to be hurting.”

Johnson won’t be the only one in pain, as Merchant will try to patch together a cohesive group through Dec. 16, when Johnson and Taylor are eligible to return from suspension.

“They’re really good kids, and I don’t feel in any way that it was malicious in intent, and that’s just my personal opinion in talking to them, but it’s a situation that came about, and it puts us at a disadvantage,” Merchant said.

“You can’t make poor decisions and expect to lead. It was disappointing, she understood it and, really, to her credit, she has an opportunity to earn that back based on some of the things that she does, and holds herself accountable in all areas. I expect her to do that. But it wasn’t easy, and she learned a lesson.”

After putting the team through a couple of days of “very intense team building,” guards Klarissa Bell and Jasmine Thomas were voted the team’s newest captains. joining senior forward Courtney Schiffauer.

Yet through all the turmoil, Johnson still is determined to be a leader.

She said she plans to sit with Merchant during games and help bridge communication between players and coaches.

“I never doubted that we would bond together. … We’re sisters. Blood wouldn’t make us any closer,” Johnson said of the team.

“Being a captain is a title. It’s an honor of course, but it’s a title. You have to feel the role of being a captain. Regardless of whether I have the title or not, I’m going to be a leader and help my team.”

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