Monday, June 17, 2024

Lone senior keeps focus as season winds down

Senior guard Mia Johnson talks about her experience at MSU as she approaches her Senior Day. Junior forward Aisha Jefferson, who came in with Johnson, adds her thoughts on the Minneapolis native, including what she thought of Johnson when she first met her.

Even as her last few games as a Spartan come closer to reality, senior guard Mia Johnson is strictly focused on the importance of winning the Big Ten Championship.

After all, intensity and focus have been Johnson’s trademarks at MSU and have allowed her to leave an indelible mark on the program.

The Spartans weren’t even an option for Johnson while attending North Community High in Minneapolis. The Minnesota 3A Player of the Year only had two schools in mind at the time — Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Instead the 5-foot-9 three-point shooter found herself at St. Louis, where she led the Billikens with 17.1 points per game, and a team-high 87 assists and 50 steals while averaging 4 rebounds per game.

But the teams 4-23 record ate away at Johnson’s competitive spirit, something that led her to Coach Al Brown, an assistant under then-MSU head coach Joanne P. McCallie.

“When she came in, we got excited about her toughness and her experience,” McCallie said. “We knew she was going to compete. We knew she had found some individual success at St. Louis and she wanted some team success.”

East Lansing made an impression on Johnson and brought her into McCallie’s system.

“I came here, I loved Coach P’s philosophy when she was here,” Johnson said. “I fell in love with the campus. It had everything going for it. Girls are spoiled here.”

Once a Spartan, Johnson made an immediate impact. In her debut against Bucknell, Johnson scored four points and had six rebounds and seven assists, all with no turnovers.

She followed up with a 16-point, seven-assist and two-steal game against UT Arlington. The hot start led to Johnson starting 27 of MSU’s 33 games that season, helping lead the Spartans to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Her crowning moment came in a game at No. 13 Purdue, with 1.3 seconds remaining in the game and MSU trailing 52-51. Johnson calmly ran down the court, took a pass and knocked down a three, winning the game for the Spartans.

“That was a big moment, McCallie said. “It’s unique. It takes guts and courage to take that shot and you saw a lot of her in that shot.”

In the summer before her junior season, Johnson tore her ACL and struggled to get into the lineup right away with new head coach Suzy Merchant. Starting the last 17 games of the season, Johnson led the charge for the Spartans in hopes to get into the NCAA Tournament.

After starting the season 12-10, MSU had an outside shot of making the Big Dance. Johnson guided the team to winning six of their last eight regular season games. When the Spartans were left out of the NCAA Tournament, Johnson helped the team make it to the WNIT championship game, where they fell short to Marquette, 81-66.

As a senior, Johnson has struggled, but has found different ways to help the team.

“(I’m) basically being vocal, but also setting an example,” Johnson said. “Just going out there every day and working hard.”

Junior forward Aisha Jefferson said Johnson provides much more to the team than the stat sheet might suggest.

“A lot of people care about Mia in just how the way we’re finishing out the season for her,” Jefferson said. “She’s just so feisty. If she’s not out there she’ll tell somebody else that they need to be fired up. She’s very intelligent and a basketball mind.”

Johnson plans to use that basketball mind to be a coach after she graduates. The only choice she has yet to make is whether the feistiness she displays on the court would transfer over to her coaching style.

“I don’t know if I’m going to take Coach (Mike Krzyzewski of Duke) or Coach Merchant’s feistiness,” Johnson said.

As her time at MSU winds down, Johnson is thankful for the connections she’s made.

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“I would say just the friendships I built with my teammates,” Johnson said about what she would remember most. “These are going to be my sisters, to an extent, for the rest of my life. I love the girls here.”

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