March 7, 2009

'EM-J.'playing beyond her years

March 7, 2009

By ALEX PAVLOVIC, NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER

March 7, 2009 7:57 AM

Emilie Johnson stood at the free throw line with four seconds left, flanked by players who started their college careers while she was still in junior high. The girl who's missed only two free throws all season long calmly sank the first shot, and then swished the second to put the finishing touches on Thursday's 65-59 win over UC Riverside that clinched the Big West regular-season title for the Gauchos.

While shooting 92 percent on free throws as a freshman is impressive, it's not nearly as impressive as the fact that Johnson was even on the floor to take the final shots. With the conference title on the line in the final minute of the biggest game of the season, it was Johnson, less than a year removed from high school with the ball in her hands.

Not bad for an 18-year-old.

"We need her to play like a senior, not like a freshman, and she's been doing that," said sixth-year senior Jenna Green. "She was in a really tough position at the beginning, and to start as a freshman there's a lot of pressure, but she's really grown. She's become a huge weapon for us."

Johnson came to UCSB expecting to back up fifth-year seniors Sha'Rae Gibbons and Lauren Pedersen, but when Gibbons went down with a preseason hand injury, the Loomis native was thrust into the starting lineup. The opportunity set off a whirlwind season for Johnson, who committed to UCSB before her junior year at Del Oro High School.

She scored 11 points in her first collegiate game, and reached double-digits three times while starting the first 12 games of the season. But with Gibbons back at full-strength, Johnson was relegated to backup duty, and all of a sudden the former McDonald's All-America nominee who played 40 minutes in two of her first six college games was mired in a stretch where she played a total of 57 minutes in her first five games off the bench.

The demotion might have disappointed some players, but Johnson embraced the role and she's emerged as a scoring threat on the perimeter and in transition. So much so that coach Lindsay Gottlieb regularly plays Johnson, Gibbons and Pedersen together.

"Emilie has meant so much to our team," Gottlieb said. "She started out playing 38 minutes a game as a freshman, which is pretty phenomenal, and then she adapted when Sha'Rae came back. She's been a huge piece for us. She hits big shots when we need big shots, and she's able to handle the ball and rest our other point guards and she does little things like rebounding and playing defense.

"As a freshman, I couldn't have asked for a whole lot more."

While she may have hit the so-called rookie wall midway through the season, Johnson has been better than ever in the past month. She scored 14 points against Pacific on Feb. 19, a game in which she started for the injured Gibbons, and two nights later came off the bench to hit a pair of huge threes in a win over UC Davis. The game against the Aggies was particularly important for Johnson, who had one of her most efficient games of the season in front of her entire high school team.

As the Gauchos changed in the locker room after the game, the girls of Del Oro gathered outside, chanting Johnson's name and held up signs honoring their beloved "Em-J."

Johnson emerged from the dressing room to take pictures with her former teammates, all while flashing the big smile that she often has trouble hiding after hitting a big shot.

"It was awesome, it just kind of explains where I come from," said Johnson, who says she's been called Em-J since her freshman year of high school. "It's just a small town that's centered around the high school and there's so much support within the town. It was just amazing that the whole Del Oro basketball program could be out there and it made me appreciate where I come from."

Johnson might appreciate where she came from, but when it came time to choose a college, she spurned nearby Davis, as well as Colorado, Fresno State, Notre Dame and others to become a Gaucho. It was an easy decision for Johnson, who didn't even make official visits to other schools because she had her heart set on coming to UCSB.

"This is really a unique program," she said. "Just the whole Gaucho heart thing is unique, and you have great coaches and teammates and a really cool atmosphere. It just fell into place, and then you also have great academics, and of course the beach isn't too bad."

Johnson was surprised when Mark French, the coach who had recruited her, abruptly retired, but she's quickly become a favorite of Gottlieb, who's referred to her as "amazing" and "miraculous" after recent games.

"She's a special kid and she just embodies what this program has been about," Gottlieb said. "She bleeds blue and gold. I'm in her ear a lot, but there's no one who works harder. She gets up a ton of shots every day and she's always working on the last thing I yell at her about."

Gottlieb learned all she needed to know about Johnson after a loss to USC in November, when the freshman came into her office the next day to watch tape of a game in which she had seven turnovers and hit just 2 of 11 shots.

"As tough as it was, she's the first one in here the next day, on a day off, asking to watch not a clip, but the entire game," Gottlieb said. "She's been great with trying to be a sponge and absorb everything."

The coach and her point guard of the future also share a common goal: Leading the Gauchos back to the Sweet 16. Johnson watched UCSB give UConn all it could handle in the Sweet 16 in 2004, a game that affirmed her belief that she wanted to be a Gaucho.

For now she's focused on helping a veteran UCSB squad try to win a Big West Tournament title, and whether that means taking care of the ball and hitting big shots in crunch time, or cheering from the bench and waiting for her chance, Johnson is ready to do whatever it takes to help her team win.

After all, she knows that no matter what her role is, she's had a freshman season that most players can only dream about.

"It's been an unbelievable experience, from starting to taking a new role, and now just taking it all in and enjoying my freshman year," Johnson said. "Being a freshman point guard is difficult, but not a lot of people get to take that role in the first few months. One thing I've learned this year is that there are going to be surprises."

Johnson might as well be speaking for her coaches and teammates with that last line. For them, she's been the best surprise of all.

e-mail:apavlovic@newspress.com