Kiana Johnson had spent exactly three months dreaming of this day, but when she finally awoke, she almost hit the snooze button.
“I woke up at like 7 (AM) and I was going to go back to sleep for 10 minutes, and I’m like ‘what am I doing? It’s game day!’” an enthusiastic Johnson said with a smile. “I just hopped out of bed and was ready.”
The sophomore guard returned to the hardwood for the first time since being slapped with a nine-game suspension before the season for violating NCAA guidelines “related to the receipt of extra benefits.” The athletic department has not yet made the nature of the benefits public.
An emotional Johnson, often known for her talkativeness, was at a loss for words in describing the past three tumultuous months, which included three teammates going down with season-ending injuries, including freshman guard Branndais Agee this week.
“Every day I was dying a little inside, not being able to play,” she said. “Anything can happen. … Just appreciate what you have while you can still play the game because the ball don’t bounce forever.”
It didn’t take long to notice Johnson’s impact, as the sophomore guard helped the MSU women’s basketball team (9-1) blow out IPFW 64-36 at Jenison Field House on Sunday.
The effect of the All-Big Ten performer was felt as soon as she stepped on the court, leaping for a steal and taking it coast-to-coast for a layup in her first minute of action.
Johnson helped ignite a 22-2 run that blew the game open, putting MSU in front 33-6 with a little less than five minutes remaining in the first half.
The sophomore guard scored four points with four assists and two steals during the eight-minute stretch before finishing with eight points, six assists and three steals.
Sophomore forward Becca Mills was one of three Spartans to score in double figures with 13 points and seven rebounds, and said Johnson’s seamless transition — which included her trademark flashy passes and hard-nosed defense — was hardly surprising.
“She’s just that type of player,” Mills said. “At first the (suspension) was really hard on her, but I think she stuck with it really well and it showed tonight. … It was like she was never gone.”
Johnson said she spent her time on the sidelines focusing on her teammates, learning where they liked to receive passes and the spots on the floor they were most comfortable scoring.
She also offered advice to head coach Suzy Merchant, who appreciated having an extra coach surveying the action.
Merchant said her point guard isn’t just a player, but a “baller:” someone who eats, sleeps and breathes basketball. Someone she’s excited to have back at her disposal.
“It was killing her,” Merchant said. “I was very impressed with her ability to handle it though. … It’s not easy to sit there, whether your team was struggling or whether your team was winning because either way you’re not part of it. She never made it about herself.”
And for Johnson, the lessons learned have made every second of pain worth it.
“Man, it just felt so good,” Johnson said. “Not being able to play for those nine games, it opens your eyes a lot. … I’ve never been happier to play defense in my life. Or to shoot a ball. I just appreciate the game a lot more now.”
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