Western's Johnson has made quite a spectacle at No. 1 Tennessee

December 29, 1992|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- When Dana Johnson left the big city fo college basketball life in the Tennessee hills two years ago, she left behind not only the hectic pace of Baltimore, but also the goggles that had been her on-court trademark at Western High.

"They were my mom's idea. I hated them. I had to make a change," said Johnson.

It's contact lenses now. And the change in her appearance is symbolic of the transformation Johnson has made into a big-time college basketball star, as she leads the top-ranked Tennessee Volunteers against George Washington tonight (6:30) in the opening game of the Maryland Invitational Tournament.

In the second game at approximately 8:30 p.m., Howard University will play the host Terps. The consolation and championship games will be played tomorrow night.

Johnson, The Baltimore Sun's 1991 Female Athlete of the Year in her senior season at Western, led the Doves to two city titles and an overall 65-4 record, averaging 20.6 points and 14 rebounds that year.

But Johnson, who chose Tennessee over Maryland, quickly discovered that the ease with which she dominated the high school game didn't translate to the college realm.

Indeed, the 6-foot-2 center spent much of last season watching from the bench, getting just two starts in 31 games.

"For me, it was just getting mentally focused. Last year, I was trying to learn. This year, I know my role and I'm trying to stay more focused," said Johnson.

Johnson has become a revelation this year, moving into the starting lineup, averaging 12.7 points and six rebounds, both third-best on the Volunteer squad.

"I don't think she felt responsible for how the team played last year. She is a much smarter player and a more serious player this season. Last year, she went for every pass [offensively]. Only on a few occasions has she done that this year," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.

Summitt is just as pleased with Johnson's work ethic and enthusiasm as she is with her play.

For instance, Summitt said, Johnson got herself into the "best shape she has been since she came here." Her playing weight of 199 pounds is still imposing enough to wear down lighter opponents in the post, but streamlined to allow her to play longer.

In fact, Johnson played 38 minutes in Tennessee's 74-73 overtime win over then-No. 1 Stanford in the finals of the Wahine Classic in Honolulu on Dec. 6, which propelled the Volunteers to the top of the polls.

"A year ago, Dana Johnson could not have made 38 minutes and played quality basketball. She's been very vocal and I've appreciated that she doesn't wait for the seniors to take charge," said Summitt.

Johnson's improved play couldn't have come at a better time for Tennessee, the most storied name in the recent history of women's basketball, with three national titles in the last six years and six Final Four appearances in nine seasons.

However, the Volunteers, heavy favorites to repeat their 1990-91 title last season, were unceremoniously bounced from the NCAA tournament in the Mideast Regional semifinals by Western Kentucky, which beat Maryland the next night to earn a Final Four spot.

"That really shocked us. I don't think we had the thought in our mind that we weren't going to the Final Four," said Johnson.

Things weren't looking very promising early this season either when starting senior point guard Jody Adams tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee in the preseason.

In addition, prized recruit Michelle Johnson was redshirted for the season with knee problems, and senior center Peggy Evans, a preseason All-American, was suspended for the first five exhibition and regular-season games for disciplinary reasons.

Those trials, plus two meetings with defending national champion Stanford in the first five games, would have been enough to cause lesser teams to wilt.

But the Volunteers (6-0), down to just nine players on the roster, ++ have not only held up, but thrived.

"I'm very interested to see how this team, which is very focused, lives up to its responsibilities. It [the season] will be a question to them: 'Can you handle success?' " said Summitt.

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