Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Division II POY Kiana Johnson and her amazing second chance at Virginia Union

Kiana Johnson thought nothing could be better than the make-believe championships she won in grammar school in north Chicago.

The game dubbed "biddy ball" was played with rims standing 8 feet and her main opponent was a boy her size named Derrick Randolph.

"Winning was the best thing in the world," said Johnson, the Virginia Union guard named WBCA Division II national player of the year on Monday.

What could top that? How about a national championship?

Johnson and Virginia Union. coached by AnneMarie Gilbert; play Bentley (Mass) University (28-5) in Sioux Falls, S.D., in the Elite Eight on Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 p.m.. The Falcons won the national title in 2014; Virginia Union's only championship was in 1983. The winner advances to Wednesday's 7 p.m. national semifinals.

The national championship will be in Indianapolis on April 4.

It would be no stretch to argue the 5-6 point guard is the best player in any division in this state. She grew up begging her mom to allow her to go to the park with her brothers, and Mom said no until one day the answer changed.

"When she let me go, I picked up a ball and the rest is history," Johnson said.

AAU and high school ball were the natural course, but playing in college wasn't on Johnson's radar. Sure, she watched games on TV and talked about going to Tennessee to play for Pat Summitt "because that's where the winning is," she told her friends. Then her brother came in the house with a letter. From Princeton.

"You're lying," she insisted.

It was the first of many -- Memphis, Pitt, Missouri, James Madison sent mail, and her box overflowed the summer of her sophomore year.

She decided on Michigan State. Her family liked the fit for her and besides, she saw 6-7 Madison Williams dunk when she visited during Midnight Madness. "In my mind, I was thinking, 'Oh, we're going to win the national championship! I can actually throw oops to somebody."

What started out promising didn't have a happy ending. Johnson was named to the Big Ten's All-Freshman team and awarded the team's playmaker award as a sophomore. She didn't finish a promising junior year, suspended first for accepting extra benefits and then finally booted off the team by coach Suzy Merchant.

"It was me not knowing how to react to certain situations. I reacted poorly," Johnson says today. "I've become a lot more mature. I didn't appreciate what I had."

Johnson knew she'd play again but had trouble regrouping. She enrolled in summer classes at a Chicago community college but entered the period she calls the lowest in her life when her former boyfriend was murdered that summer, May 2014. She took a job as a cashier and gave her next direction some serious thought.

"I needed time to grow, time to get my mind right because I wasn't right for a while," she said. "I didn't think I would ever get over that. I would go to church and pray. I wanted answers."

Johnson considered finishing her final year of eligibility at NAIA schools Bethel University or Goshen College. She couldn't decide, so she said a prayer seeking a sign.

"Two minutes later, my high school coach called me and said Coach G got the job at Virginia Union," she said. "He asked me if I had committed anywhere because she wanted to know if I was interested in taking a visit."

Johnson put the phone down. "Mom! I'm going to Virginia Union!" she hollered.

She decided before setting foot on campus. "There was no way I would ask for a sign and then get a phone call from a coach wanting me to visit a team and then not go," she said.

Johnson knew Gilbert from the Spartans playing against Eastern Michigan when Gilbert coached there. She remembered her teammate Lykendra Johnson chatting with Gilbert after a game Johnson's freshman season. She recalled liking Gilbert then, and visiting the 100-acre HBCU that enrolls fewer than 1,500 students confirmed her decision.

"The environment was amazing," she said. "It had a home feeling. I fell in love with it. Everybody was so welcoming. In Chicago it's not really like that. You get a look of suspicion every time you go somewhere. Here everybody has smiles on their faces. I felt at home right away."

Another home, Mount Gilead, a dynamic church she found while attending with one of her professors.

And another: her team. Johnson swears when she met her teammates, she knew "we're going all the way. We had every position played. We have shooters, penetrators, posts."

The Panthers offense centers on the dynamic guard who led Division II in scoring (29.3 ppg) and ranked second nationally in assists (8.7 apg). In last week's Sweet 16, she recorded a school-record 49 points to go with eight assists and six steals.

The Panthers' last loss came on Jan. 25 at Lincoln University by five. They were also nipped by Johnson C. Smith on Dec. 19.

Johnson is determined to play her final college game in Indianapolis, a four-hour drive from Chicago. While pro ball is on her mind, she's passionate about her degree in psychology that she will complete in December.

She has vivid memories of walking around her Chicago neighborhood passing the homeless who were often talking to themselves. Her own sense of caution prompted her to have conversations out loud, too.

"I would walk down the street pretending I was crazy counting out loud, so nobody would bother me," she said.

In doing so, she realized people are often mistakenly classified as crazy. "There's always a reason a person acts the way they do. I'm big on helping people. For me, it's about making the world a better place. Life is a lot bigger than me. I want to be able to help somebody else, and with my psychology major, I think I can do that."

Her master's, she says, will be in mental health counseling and her doctorate in clinical psychology.

Unlike the years at Michigan State, Johnson takes nothing for granted anymore -- not her education, friends she's made or dream season in basketball. Life has strange twists (like her, her grammar school buddy Randolph attended Fresno State before spending this season at a California community college where his numbers were nearly identical to hers).

"After every game I got into my apartment, close my door and give God thanks," she said. "The things he's done for me, not just basketball, but the healing and deliverance I've been able to see through him -- man, it's amazing."

That's why her main goal isn't about hoop dreams. It's about giving back.

"I feel like I'm inspiring a lot of people from my old neighborhood, just youth mainly," she said. "That's who I really want to get to because they're our future. I want to tell them you can always accomplish your dreams. You just have to work. That's my goal -- to show them and be a living testimony to them. Have faith and whatever it is you desire, you'll be able to get.

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