Nov. 19, 2008
By Ray Hacke
Auburn Journal Sports Writer
Emilie Johnson would have been content to spend her freshman season soaking up advice from the more established point guards on UC Santa Barbara's roster.
An injury to one of them, however, thrust Johnson into a starting role.
Now the 2008 Del Oro High graduate finds herself running the offense for the reigning Big West Conference women's basketball champion.
"It's a lot for her, being a freshman," Gauchos coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "Her head is spinning at times -- she hears my voice a lot.
"But her ability to take constructive criticism and never get down, the team feeds off that."
Johnson will make the second start of her college career tonight when UCSB plays at Fresno State.
Her first went pretty well. Johnson played for 30 minutes Sunday in the Gauchos' season-opening win over the University of San Diego, scoring 11 points on 6-of-6 shooting at the foul line. She made two of her free throws in the final 23 seconds to help put the game away.
UC Santa Barbara is a program with a winning tradition, having won 13 Big West titles and made 12 NCAA Tournament appearances in the past 21 seasons under former coach Mark French, who retired after last season. Still, Johnson doesn't find the high expectations that come with being in a leadership role for the Gauchos so early in her career to be overwhelming.
"I'm really excited to be where I am now," Johnson said. "I'm learning a lot, not just on the court, but off the court as well."
Johnson became the Gauchos' starting point guard when fifth-year senior Sha'Rae Gibbons broke her pinkie. She is expected to be out for a couple of months. Johnson credits Gibbons as well as the Gauchos' other senior point guard, Lauren Pedersen, with helping her learn what it takes to play the position at the Division I level.
"Until Sha'Rae gets back, I just want to help the team win, whether that means scoring, getting assists or not turning the ball over," Johnson said.
Johnson's willingness to learn is the biggest reason why Gottlieb entrusted her with running the point so soon.
"She's one of the most coachable kids I've ever been around," the coach said. "She's a sponge -- she just wants to get better. She's a gym rat. She's everything you could want in a point guard."
It doesn't hurt that Johnson is both "more physically ready than most freshmen" and has the right skill set, Gottlieb said.
"She's got a great feel for the game," Gottlieb said. "She's a terrific shooter, and for a point guard she's very strong, which gives her the ability to finish in the paint."
While Johnson considers the Gauchos her "second family," she has actual family on campus. Her older brother Taylor is a junior at at UCSB.
"He's my biggest fan and a great supporter," Johnson said. "It's awesome to have him here."
Gottlieb believes Johnson "can definitely play basketball after college, and will have a lot of opportunities to do so." Johnson's focus for the time being, however, is on soaking up as much as she can to be the best player she can be at the college level.
"Every single day I'm taking in something new," Johnson said. "I'm enjoying the experience."
"She's already a terrific Gaucho," Gottlieb said. "She should have a great career here."