Laura Johnson knows that she doesn’t have to be a star to be a major contributor for the Princeton University women’s basketball team.
As one of three seniors on the squad, reserve guard Johnson has soaked up some telling lessons on leadership during her college career.
“The past two years when we won the Ivy League we have been led by really good seniors,” said Johnson.
“We have had a wide range as to what role those seniors have played on the team. We have had someone like Tani [Brown] who didn’t really play that much but was a leader on and off the court; she was vocal and everyone’s best friend. Then we had someone like Addie [Micir] who was the Ivy Player of the Year.”
The affable Johnson is crafting her own leadership style this winter. “I just looked at them and realized that no matter what my role is on the court, I can always be that leader,” said Johnson, who is averaging 3.1 points in 12.6 minutes a game this season. “I can be vocal and show the freshman how it is done and be the voice of support to my teammates basically.”
Last Sunday against visiting Columbia, Johnson provided some deadeye shooting to go with her words of encouragement.
The 5’8 Johnson scored 12 points on 4-of-7 three-pointers in 18 minutes off the bench as Princeton routed the Lions 94-35 before 742 at Jadwin Gym to improve to 13-4 overall and 3-0 in Ivy play.
Acknowledging that Princeton had been sluggish in a 64-35 win over Cornell on Friday, Johnson said the Tigers were looking to be sharp against Columbia as they played their last game before going on an 18-day exam hiatus.
“We had a sour taste in our mouths after the game Friday; we won big and the points looked good but we had a lot of turnovers and we didn’t execute as well as we would have liked,” said Johnson.
“Our first five came in really big for us and set the tone immediately. It is really easy going in off the bench when you have a first five that takes care of business in the beginning.”
The Tiger reserves took care of their business as they helped extend the Princeton lead to more than 50 points for a good portion of the second half.
“It is good to get the second group coming in more and getting some more playing time together in the game,” added Johnson, a native of Lower Gwynedd, Pa., who now has 424 points in her Princeton career.
“It gets everyone feeling really good when they start making some shots. Mariah [Smith] was doing really well; Alex [Rodgers] came in and hit some shots. Meg Bowen went off. Getting people like that to get shots up and start getting the confidence they need really helps us as we move into the rest of Ivy League play.”
Getting off to a 3-0 start in Ivy play sends the Tigers into the break feeling good about themselves.
“We are happy with what has happened so far,” said Johnson. “It is a tough period for us because no one wants to be studying all day. Practicing without playing is also tough in general. We are happy that our last game before that period was a good game for us. Coach was happy so we know she is not sitting and brooding about this weekend. It really sets a good tone for us going into these next three weeks so we will just keep practicing.”
Princeton head coach Banghart set an intense tone Sunday, making it clear that she didn’t want a repeat of the effort she saw against Cornell.
“It is basically you don’t want me crabby for the next three weeks,” said a grinning Banghart, who got 21 points from Niveen Rasheed in the win over Columbia with Lauren Edwards chipping in 19.
“Also, these guys have so much pride, they know they didn’t play well on Friday. I was about to tell them I am going to quit on your transition game and you don’t want me to get to that point. I think they showed ‘coach don’t quit on our transition game, we are willing to push it and take open shots.’ They did that, as you saw, which is really hard to guard. We had over 100 rebounds in two games [57 against Columbia and 55 against Cornell]; we just want to own the glass all season long.”
Banghart likes the pride the Tiger reserves have shown in pushing the starters.
“The only way they can gain experience is to get it,” added Banghart. “You earn it in practice. They are sitting behind some very talented players so they have to stick with it. I thought defensively there were a couple of lapses but you would expect that. They haven’t had a lot of game experience yet but overall I think they are growing up.”
In Banghart’s view, Johnson has grown into a key leader for the Tigers. “LJ has had to develop into appreciating and executing in a reserve role,” said Banghart.
“That role is as important as everybody else’s. She has bought into it and is making a difference when she is in. That’s all we can ask. I always say you don’t remember individual performances, you remember the senior class of every team you are on so be the senior class that wins another title. Lauren is quiet, she barely has a pulse; Devona is a thinker so she is really pensive and LJ is a perfectionist so the three of them together cover all the spectrums. It is a very eclectic group.”
That class has the Tigers on track for another special season. “I am very pleased; I would never have guessed we would be 13-4 given the schedule we gave them,” said Banghart.
“The kids really had to find and discover their roles and our leadership had to find their voices. To go 13-4 with the schedule we had is remarkable.”
Banghart believes her team can build on its superb start when it returns to action in February.
“The good thing is that we have three weeks now and then we have two very important back-to-back weekends and we’ll be ready,” asserted Banghart, whose club hosts Brown on February 3 and Yale on February 4.
“We got what we needed to get and now we have time to get better at certain areas. We will bring the boys in so we play against bigger, stronger, and faster people. That will help us get sharper because we need to get sharper by February.”
Johnson, for her part, is ready to savor the last few weeks of her college career.
“I know I am going to miss it; the seniors try to take a picture at every away game on the court,” said Johnson, who will be working after graduation for Deutsche Bank in New York City, doing sales and trading.
“It is getting very sentimental; I don’t think it has really 100 percent hit home yet that this will be the last few games I will ever play competitive basketball in my life. I am trying to take the little moments and not take them for granted, just cherishing this experience.”