December 17, 2010 5:19:00 AM
The numbers probably will change.
But Diamber Johnson will be hard pressed to deliver a more balanced game than the one she turned in Saturday against the University of Utah.
The junior point guard was 9 of 18 from the field en route to a career-high 24-point performance in the Mississippi State women''s basketball team''s 61-52 victory. She added five rebounds, three assists, one blocked shot, and only two turnovers in 34 minutes to help the Lady Bulldogs improve to 5-2.
"It felt normal to me," Johnson said. "I have the opportunities like this every game, but these were just falling. I was reading them and my teammates were helping me. They recognized I was on and they were helping me use the screens better and they were setting good screens for me."
Johnson will need to have similar efforts twice this week if MSU is going to have a chance to close the pre-Christmas part of its schedule on a high note.
At 7 tonight, MSU will play at Southern Miss (5-3). It will return to Jackson after the game and depart Thursday for Cincinnati, Ohio, where it will prepare for its game against No. 5 Xavier at 6 p.m. Friday.
Johnson has made the most of her opportunity in a bigger leadership role this season. She is averaging a team-high 14.3 points per game in a team-leading 35.9 minutes per game. She is shooting 42 percent from the field and 79 percent from the free-throw line. She also is averaging 4.3 rebounds per game and has a positive assist-to-turnover ratio (24-15), which is crucial for a team that has five junior college transfers and four freshmen.
"That is going to be an important part of our team, her leadership, her recognition, and her ability," MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "That doesn''t mean we have to have a 20-something point game every game, but she needs to put people in the right positions, and she needs to be in the right position."
Johnson is showing the attention to detail and focus Fanning-Otis wants to help lead the team. She said Johnson is developing a better understanding of how to get her shots in the flow of an offense and how to set up her teammates so they are most effective.
That is a delicate balance for Johnson, who had played in 66 games entering this season but had started only five games. After scoring 2,001 points in four years at Pontotoc High School, Johnson spent her first two years at MSU as an understudy. Last season, she provided a steady support system to All-Southeastern Conference performers Alexis Rack and Armelie Lumanu and junior Mary Kathryn Govero. In 23.8 minutes per game, Johnson averaged 4.1 points, took 139 shots, and had an impressive assist-to-turnover ratio (73-38).
This season, Johnson, who already has taken 91 shots, and Govero are by far the most experienced players on the team. Govero, who didn''t score against Utah in 34 minutes, have attracted the most defensive attention from opponents. With the Lady Bulldogs still adjusting to roles and getting everyone back into the lineup, Johnson''s role becomes even more important.
Against Utah, she read the floor and exploited the high screen and roll effectively, dribbling into space after rubbing her defender off the screen and then pulling up and hitting the open shot. Johnson has the quickness to turn the corner and take the ball to the basket, which could create easy drive-and-dish scoring opportunities for post players like Catina Bett. The 6-foot-5 transfer from the University of Kentucky scored seven points in 19 minutes in her first action in a MSU uniform. Bett''s presence will give MSU another option to go with Judith Tabala and Danielle Rector in the paint, which Johnson feels will help the team.
"It takes a lot more stress off just knowing we have another option," Johnson said. "We can look forward to getting more points in the paint than just relying on the outside shot."
In addition to her increased scoring, Johnson has shown she can be a fiery floor general. On several occasions she has chided teammates for not finishing scoring chances or for not doing something with as much effort as she knows is possible. Fanning-Otis said Johnson had those qualities when she was at Pontotoc High, and they have become stronger as she has assumed a bigger role at MSU.
"She is a coach on the floor, and that is what she wants to be one day," Fanning-Otis said. "She is preparing for it one day by playing the role for us."
Fanning-Otis said she and assistant coach Greg Franklin learned in the recruiting process that Johnson was a "gym rat" and a "winner." She said they have seen how quickly Johnson can pick up tendencies and plays and guide her teammates through the process. Fanning-Otis said she saw Johnson start to do those things in the preseason, and she feels Johnson only is going to grow into a more confident player who can pick her spots and set up teammates to help the Lady Bulldogs go.
"The better she is, so goes the team," Fanning-Otis said. "She is working to be a good teacher for the new players and striving hard to be very consistent in that role."
MSU will need that consistency tonight when it tries to extend its two-game winning streak. Southern Miss is coming off wins against Arkansas-Little Rock and Tennessee State. Junior forward Rachel Vigers (16.5 ppg.) leads the Golden Eagles in scoring. Senior Tanesha Washington adds 14.9 ppg.
MSU has won the last two meetings, including an 85-52 victory last season in Starkville.
MSU will play host to Mississippi Valley State at 7 p.m. Monday in its final home game of 2010.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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