Johnson Explodes for Career-High 22 Points; Helping PDS Girls’ Hoops Edge Pennington
As Princeton Day School girls’ basketball player Lauren Johnson took the court for the second half at Pennington last week, some parental advice was going through her mind.
“My dad always tells me to score more,” said junior guard Johnson. “I realized this is the time to do it. We always relied on Janie [Smukler], Tiff [Patterson], and Sarah [Godwin] last year. Without them, we have to learn how to score on our own.”
Johnson took her dad’s words to heart, exploding for 12 points in the third quarter.
“I had no idea what was going on,” recalled Johnson, who had scored only two points in the first half of the contest which saw the Panthers trailing 20-12 at the break. “It just happened, everything was falling. I wasn’t going to question it.”
With the game hanging in the balance in the fourth quarter as PDS cut the Pennington lead to three points, Johnson coolly sank 8-of-10 free throws down the stretch as the Panthers pulled out a 41-37 triumph.
“I was breathing; I had to stay calm,” said Johnson, reflecting on her mindset at the line as she put the finishing touches on her career-high 22-point outburst.
“During practice, I work on my free throws. I just learned, yeah it is a tight game but it doesn’t change your free throw shot.”
Coming into the game, Johnson and her teammates had to change some things as they had lost 39-22 to Pennington in December.
“We wanted to slow it down and run through our offense because last time, we were all fresh in new positions since we had just lost Janie,” said Johnson, referring to Smukler’s season-ending knee injury.
“Our main goal was to stay calm and be confident and strong with the ball. Team-wise, we were better than last time but we had expected to be even better. We did that in the second half.”
In the fourth quarter, the Panthers tightened things up on the boards and defensively to close the deal as they outscored the Red Raiders 12-5 in the period.
“We realized that this is obviously a winnable game and all we need to do is box out and play the way we know we can play,” said Johnson.
PDS head coach Mika Ryan saw defense as the key to turning the tables on Pennington.
“After many hours of looking at the DVD from the last game, I recognized that we needed to play good half court defense,” said Ryan.
“We are not able to run with a team like this. We needed to block out and allow no second shots and no shots in transition. That’s what we really focused on, good halfcourt defense, whether it was man or zone.”
At halftime, Ryan didn’t feel that her team was executing the game plan. “I challenged them at halftime,” said Ryan. “I didn’t think they were playing anywhere near their potential. I didn’t think they were playing smart.”
Ryan certainly liked the way Johnson answered the challenge. “LJ takes it to heart; I have never seen her play like that,” asserted Ryan.
“I thought her floor game was good too. She made good decisions; she ran the floor well. She always surprises me; I don’t know how I put words on this one. We have already talked about her becoming our point guard for next year and I said your job is going to be distribution and making sure that everyone else is happy and getting the ball. Then she comes out and scores 22; point guards can score too.”
Johnson’s passing led to one of the key buckets of the game as she set up a jumper by Tess Zahn with less than three minutes remaining in regulation.
“I knew in my heart that we were going to win this game when Zahn made that jumper,” said Ryan.
“She had just missed two free throws and I thought she was going to start hanging her head and she hit that shot and I am thinking we are going to win this game. Some things like that, you just know.”
PDS got some good things in the win over Pennington from junior stalwart Hannah Levy.
“I thought Hannah Levy was outstanding; she just does so many little things that don’t get attention,” added Ryan, whose team went on to top Stuart 35-18 last Wednesday to post its third straight win and improve to 5-5.
“She got some key rebounds and the shot she made when she got hammered, I thought was a big shot. She is tough, I thought she was terrific, with key shots, key rebounds, and a good floor game.”
With the Panthers having been using just six players due to a rash of injuries, Ryan was looking for some toughness as they went through a stretch of three games in five days.
“We looked at the last two games plus the Stuart game as a three-game season,” said Ryan, whose team hosts Abington Friends on January 18 before playing at Lawrenceville on January 20 and South Hunterdon on January 23 and then hosting Hun on January 24.
“I said come Wednesday night, we want to be 3-0 on this season and then we have time to rest. I said I need everything you have for these three games. I need your focus; I need your energy. We are just trying to take it a step at a time and stay healthy so we can continue our season. That is always in the back of my mind.
In Johnson’s view, the win over Pennington could end up as a big step forward for the Panthers.
“I feel like the season is going to pick up from here,” said Johnson. “It has been challenging endurance-wise. I feel like I have learned to be more confident with the ball because I have to be point sometimes and I am not really used to that so I have to suck it up. A lot of us have learned that we do have a shot and we have become more confident in ourselves.”