Jan. 10, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – The Marshall women’s basketball roster lists junior guard AJ Johnson at 5 feet 5.
That seems to be a bit of a stretch, but she’s played big so far for the Thundering Herd after arriving from junior college ball. Besides, one of her best friends -- with arms upraised -- stands almost 11 feet tall.
That would be “The Gun,” the Shoot-A-Way Inc. product that rebounds missed or made shots and returns the basketball in rapid-fire fashion to help players with their shooting skills.
Johnson doesn’t know where she’d be without “The Gun” – perhaps not playing in Conference USA, and certainly not shooting about 38 percent from behind the 3-point arc, among the top seven in the league.
She’s also the team’s best free throw shooter – and ranks second on C-USA -- with a .906 percentage (29-of-32) and in her last six games, she’s averaging 12.4 points.
Told she seems to be a very confident marksman, the Silver Spring, Md., native said it wasn’t always that way.
“No, my freshman year I shot 19 percent behind the arc (and 32 percent on all field goal attempts),” said Johnson, who came to Marshall (7-7) from Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Neb. “I was never a shooter, but I just kept shooting on The Gun. When I’m on The Gun, I try not to shoot under 75 percent. That’s high, but it helps me.
“I just keep shooting, rapid fire.”
Johnson was discovered by the Herd when it was recruiting wing player Leah Scott at Iowa Western Community College. Iowa Western and Northeast split regular-season games in 2012-13, and when they played in the Region XI title game, MU assistant coach Caronica Randle was there.
Northeast won to advance to the District K title game, which led to one of the 24 berths in the NJCAA Division I national tournament in Salina, Kan.
The Herd signed both players – now starters for Coach Matt Daniel – and Johnson said she still talks trash with Scott about winning that JUCO rubber match for a nationals berth on a team that finished 28-5.
“Coach Randle was watching Leah play, and she called Coach Daniel and told him to take a look at me in the (national) tournament,” Johnson said. “I had about 14 schools calling me, and five offered me (Marshall, North Dakota, Seton Hall, Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M). A lot of them wanted me to come and visit, but Marshall was the first one.
“Marshall came out of nowhere, really. I was in my hotel room at nationals and Coach Daniel was on the computer and I said something like I was going to run a mile before the game. He told me that just stuck with him. And he watched me play and I ended up picking Marshall.”
Her given first name is Andrea, and her “AJ” nickname is a combination of that and her surname. How she came by it is a story in itself.
“When I first started playing basketball in the seventh grade, we had girls on our team named Andrea, Andrea (pronounced On-DRE-A), Adrienne, and the coach, she asked me what my last name was,” the Herd guard said. “I said, ‘Johnson.’ And she said, ‘you’re AJ.’ I’ve been AJ ever since.”
Johnson, a business management major who is averaging 9.8 points per game, said she wouldn’t have been with the Herd had she not going the junior college route.
She played at Bethesda High School and she became a qualifier but got her SAT scores late in the recruiting process. She said schools interested were “low Division I and some Division II schools.”
“The recruiting process was so long, and the first JUCO who had called me was (Coach) Matt Svehla at Northeast,” she said. “I really wasn’t disappointed I got my scores late. I’m actually glad I went to junior college because I had more time to prepare before I got to this level.
“If I had gone straight from high school into Division I, it probably would have been at low D-I school, so it was good for me. I became a better player and can play at a higher level now.”
Johnson has adapted well to Daniel’s uptempo system because Svehla wanted his Northeast CC teams to push it, too. After starting early in Daniel’s drills at point guard, Johnson was moved to the two spot. She and sophomore point guard Norrisha “ReRe” Victrum give the Herd an aggressive backcourt tandem, and their quickness allows Daniel’s team to get into its break attack no matter who is handling the ball.
“I’m really comfortable with everything now,” said Johnson, who has started 10 of 14 games. “It took me a couple of games to get my jitters out and my confidence level up. Now, I can just play and go and make plays. Coach moved me off the one to play two to make more plays, and that’s what I’m more comfortable doing.
“I played (point) in junior college. I like the two better. It’s more freedom. I can do a lot more things. At the one, I’m not limited, but the one is mostly helping others make plays. At the two, I can create plays, too. I can get my shot off the dribble, knock down open shots.
“With ReRe, it is like we have two ones. If she’s down playing defense on the other side, they can just outlet the ball to me and we can go push it up and kick it to her.”
Johnson averaged 8.7 points and 4.1 assists for a 17-14 team her freshman season at Northeast CC. Last season, she scored 11.4 points per game, and her 3-point field goal percentage rose to .306. She’s tacked on another eight percentage points to that in her first Marshall season, as the Herd entertains UAB on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Henderson Center.
“I’m just a gym rat,” Johnson said when asked how she’s improved her accuracy. “I’m always in the gym, always playing. At night, I’m working out, shooting. That’s how you get better.”