November 15, 2009 12:06:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Diamber Johnson was ready for a different role this season.
After playing a larger than expected role as a freshman last season, Johnson knew the return of senior guard Marneshia Richard was going to change things.
Johnson realized she probably was going to see fewer minutes, but Richard''s return also was going to give her a chance to earn some valuable on-the-job training in practice against an experienced guard.
But point guards always have to be ready because circumstances can change in an instant.
That''s the situation Johnson finds herself in as she re-adjusts to life without Richard, who last month suffered another knee injury that likely will force her to miss this season.
As a result, Johnson is expected to play a key role in the backcourt with seniors Alexis Rack and Armelie Lumanu and junior Mary Kathryn Govero.
"Marneshia was a great leader on the floor, but not having her means I just have to step my game up a little more," Johnson said. "I am not trying to play like Marneshia because I don''t think anyone could play to her level because she is super human when it came to the court."
Johnson will continue to transition back into the role she played last season at 2 p.m. today when MSU (1-0) plays host to East Tennessee State at Humphrey Coliseum.
Johnson had four points, three assists, and three steals in 29 minutes Friday in a 106-48 season-opening victory against Arkansas-Pine Bluff 106-48.
Johnson played in 32 games last season and averaged 14 minutes per game but provided solid court leadership, with 42 assists and 22 turnovers.
Those numbers should increase this season without Richard, as should the expectations facing Johnson and the Lady Bulldogs, who are poised to build on a 23-10 finish and a loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis feels Johnson, a 5-foot-7 sophomore from Pontotoc, can take on more this season.
"Diamber is going to be a one-two (point guard-off guard), but I think she needs to continue to be a better one," Fanning-Otis said. "She needs to be to lead a team and to run a team. That growth we need from her and for her to be more comfortable and consistent."
Johnson averaged just 2.8 points per game and shot 41 percent from the field. Fanning-Otis said Johnson''s game has matured, and believes she will produce more as she develops more confidence.
"I have seen her penetrate to the bucket better, I have seen her ready to shoot the 3-point shot better, I have seen her left hand and her use of screens on the ball better, I have seen defensively that she recognizes what she is supposed to do earlier," Fanning-Otis said. "She is a student of the game. Now is the reality of the opponent and the regular season. I have seen strides that are going to help us be a better basketball team."
Johnson said she takes pride in the fact that Fanning-Otis believes in her. She said she is going to strive to live up to those expectations.
"It is a great feeling to know the coach is on your side because that makes you try harder, even if you make a few mistakes," Johnson said. "I had a bad practice last week and she as like, ''You''re not working hard and we need you to do this and that so we can be the team we want to be.'' Hearing that from a coach and knowing she is not just speaking words makes me try harder knowing that she is on my side."
Johnson said she has improved her ballhandling. She said her goal is to attack the basket more and become the guard Fanning-Otis can count on at the end of games.
"I am improving on all aspects of what she needs from me," Johnson said.
On Friday, senior Tysheka Grimes led all MSU scorers with 22 points. She also had 12 rebounds. Govero had 12 points and 13 rebounds, while senior Chanel Mokango scored 11 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. It marked the first time in school history three players have recorded a double-double in the same game.
Grimes moved into 24th place all-time in career scoring as she now has 834 career points. Rack had 16 points and moved within three points of ninth on the school''s all-time scoring list with 1,195 points.
The Lady Bulldogs led by as many as 60 late in the second half after building a 10-0 lead a little more than a minute into the game.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.