Playing at Northwestern always is special for Lykendra Johnson.
Welsh-Ryan Arena sits about 20 miles away from the sophomore forward’s hometown of River Forest, Ill., meaning family and friends likely will fill the stands when the Spartans play the Wildcats at 8 p.m. tonight.
“It’s really exciting,” Johnson said. “To go home and play in front of my kinfolk — the family that built me up to where I am now — is a great feeling.”
Last season, in her first and only trip to Northwestern, Johnson responded with a career game, notching her first career double-double with a then-career-high 13 points and a career-high 15 rebounds in MSU’s 74-54 win.
Heading into her second trip to Welsh-Ryan Arena, head coach Suzy Merchant is continuing to rely more on Johnson.
“Last year, coach was just trying to get a feel for me and she was playing me minimum minutes, and toward the Big Ten she started trusting me. I think this year it carried on,” Johnson said.
“She trusts me to get some rebounds, she trusts me to score, trusts me to get some stops and I think that’s a big part of what we’re doing right now.”
Johnson is the team’s second-leading scorer with 9.4 points per game and is the Big Ten’s third-leading rebounder with 8.7 boards per game.
Although Johnson and her teammates recently struggled offensively during a tough stretch, her production on the glass didn’t suffer.
She still rebounded with ferocity, including grabbing almost 3.5 offensive rebounds per game.
Earlier this season, Merchant called Johnson’s rebounding style “crafty.” Johnson makes it a lot simpler.
“I just look at my opponents and I think in my head that they can’t stop me,” she said.
Senior center Lauren Aitch said Johnson is one of the team’s best defenders and someone MSU needs to have on the court.
That made it even more important for Johnson to break out of her offensive slump, when she shot a combined 5-of-18 from the field against Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue.
“The one thing I told Kendra is that when you’re in a slump, you have to have other things to focus on because that’s how you get out of it,” Aitch said. “If you’re focused on rebounding, focusing on your defense, focusing on anything else on the court other than your scoring, you jump out of your slump because you’re not thinking about it as much.”
Johnson’s all-around game picked up Sunday against Minnesota.
She played a team-high 37 minutes and scored 11 points with 11 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and three steals. More importantly, in a physical game, she was able to stay on the floor, recording only two fouls as a dominant defensive presence for the Spartans.
“I’m not gonna lie, I’m pretty sore,” Johnson said Tuesday at practice. “It’s just a part of the game. You’ve got to give your all.”
Following a stretch when Merchant criticized her players for not being able to fight through fatigue, Johnson did against Minnesota.
“There were a couple possessions where her legs got the best of her, but she really fought through fatigue and she really got into the heads of those shooters,” Merchant said. “She’s got the length. She can be four feet away from you and still get to your shot. That does kind of mess with a shooter’s head and I think she did a great job on their shooters.”
Merchant has preached defense will lead to offense.
For Johnson, that was the case on Sunday, and Merchant called Johnson’s defense against Minnesota “pretty impressive.”
“For me, it’s more so that if I get a stop on the defensive end, it energizes me for the offensive end,” Johnson said.
“I know I have to get some stops because most likely I’m going to be on their best player or scorer, so if I stop them, I know I can get something created for us on the offensive end.”
Only a sophomore, Johnson is being patient with her game.
“It will all come with time, so I’m not trying to rush it,” she said.