Dec. 17, 2009
By Ray Hacke, Auburn Journal Sports Writer
Should Emilie Johnson pursue a pro basketball career, she can count on a wholehearted recommendation from her college coach.
"I would be her biggest advocate," UC Santa Barbara coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "Whether it's overseas or in the WNBA, it doesn't matter. I would pick up the phone, call any coach and say, `This is the type of player you want to have on your team.'"
Johnson, a Del Oro High graduate, is now in her second season as UCSB's starting point guard. Known to her coaches and teammates as "Em-J," Johnson currently leads the reigning Big West Conference champion in several categories, including minutes played (35.6 per game), scoring (13.6 points per game), 3-pointers (15), free-throw shooting (21-for-24, 87.5 percent), assists (29) and steals (14).
The sophomore was named the Big West's Player of the Week for Nov. 21-29 after scoring a career-high 29 points on 6-of-6 shooting at the foul line and grabbing six rebounds in a Nov. 29 win over San Diego. Johnson also scored 14 points, one off her previous career high, in addition to pulling down six rebounds and dishing out four assists in a Nov. 25 loss to Kentucky.
"I ask her to do so much, I really do," Gottlieb said. "I ask her to play 40 minutes, to go 94 feet (the length of the basketball court) on both offense and defense, and to be a leader on the floor. She's handling the responsibility really admirably."
UCSB assistant coach Selena Ho, who works with the team's guards, concurred.
"We ask her to do multiple things," Ho said. "We ask her to run the team and put her teammates in position to score. We also ask her to be an aggressive scorer. We ask a lot, and she's done a great job."
Johnson says her coaches don't ask much more of her than she demands of herself.
"After the season last year I made a list of things I wanted to work hard to improve on," she said. "I just worked on those things, and I'm trying to accomplish more."
Foremost among her goals was establishing herself as the Gauchos' team leader, a role Johnson felt was hers to fill after UCSB lost five players from last year's 22-10 team to graduation.
"I wanted to work at being a leader on the court and being an all-around point guard," Johnson said. "I wanted to help (my teammates) trust me with the ball as their point guard."
Ho says Johnson's teammates are certainly willing to do that because of the hours Johnson puts in on and off the court.
"Anybody who puts up thousands and thousands and thousands of shots in the preseason is going to become a better shooter, and Emilie does that," Ho said. "She's a workhorse. It's a bonus that she's our point guard because the point guard has to be the hardest worker on the team, and it's good that her teammates see that because they know she backs up what she says."
"From a mentality standpoint, she's always asking, `What can I do better? What can I do to help the team win?'" Gottlieb said.
Though UCSB is currently 3-6, Johnson is "more confident than ever" that she can help the Gauchos win a third straight Big West title and go deeper in the postseason than they did last March, when UCSB lost to Stanford in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
"We've definitely had a rough start, but this is a new team and you've got to expect that," Johnson said. "We've got to practice at a championship level and maintain that. It's a matter of being consistent and playing at a championship level. I've seen glimpses of how good this team can be."
A biological sciences major who is minoring in health and exercise science, Johnson eventually hopes to pursue a career in either sports medicine or physical therapy. While she'd love to turn pro "if the opportunity's there," her immediate focus is on continuing to develop her game at the college level.
Her coaches consider themselves privileged to play a part in that development.
"I've never worked with a player as dedicated as Emilie Johnson," Ho said. "We work out extra every day. We're always doing film sessions, taking extra shots or doing tune-up sessions with special shots within our offense. She's one of those kids that eats up information."
"She's a joy to work with," Gottlieb added. "It's great knowing we get two and a half more years with her. We expect great things for UC Santa Barbara with Emilie leading the way."