February 1, 1999
BERKELEY - Players who score a lot of points get a lot of the notoriety in sports, especially in basketball. It's safe to say that most women's hoops aficionados who watch, for example, U.S. Olympian Sheryl Swoopes, do so for her high-scoring exploits, such as the performance she put on in the 1993 NCAA final when she dropped 47 points on Ohio State to win the championship.
But some, like California's Courtney Johnson, can appreciate more all-around talents. The sophomore shooting guard likes watching her idol Swoopes play defense.
Johnson, whose sister Stacey is an equipment manager for the WNBA's Houston Comets, spent part of last summer in Houston watching the Comets' Swoopes play.
"It was an honor," Johnson said. "I've loved her since high school. It was really exciting to get to see her play first hand and pick up on some of her ideas. Her big thing is playing the passing lanes. I think that had a lot to do with my change in defense from last year to this year."
You can see that improvement in the way Johnson blankets opposing guards. She was a good defender as a freshman when she led Cal with 1.7 steals per game. But now, stealing the ball has almost become an art.
For the knowledgeable Golden Bear fan, in almost every game this year there has been that delicious anticipation of when Johnson guesses right on a bad pass, steals the ball and goes the length of the court for an easy lay-up. You don't know when it's coming, but you know she's going to get that steal.
A lot of players fire themselves up by hitting a big bucket, but for Johnson, the steal is the thing.
"When someone hits a three, it gets their adrenaline going," Johnson said. "But when I get a steal, and I'm in the open court, that's what I feel is my role on this team. My defensive pressure hopefully gets the team going. That's what I look for to get me going."
Johnson's steals and overall defense are two reasons Cal has improved in that area and in the win column this year. The Bears are holding opponents to more than five points per game less than last season's 70.9 mark.
After the Jan. 16 win over USC, Johnson's steals-per-game average was 2.9, which put her second in the Pac-10 rankings. Her best career game was an eight-steal day in a win over Northwestern earlier this season. Her next best act of thievery came three days later in a six-steal performance against Pittsburgh.
In that Northwestern game, Johnson spent some time guarding Wildcat star guard Megan Chawansky and helped hold her to four points on 2-of-9 shooting and eight turnovers.
Her coach says Johnson is already among the elite defensive players in the conference.
"She's easily in the top 10," Stanley said. "I think she's the best defensive player we have on our team, and I think we're one of the better defensive teams in most categories in the league.
"She's playing smarter, she's being a little more judicious about when to go for the steal and knowing when to just put good pressure on people. Her overall understanding of defense at this level has improved."
Johnson, a lithe 5-8 guard, has always been a strong defender. But she was better known for her scoring in high school. The local girl averaged 22.9 points per game as a senior at Antioch High School and set an AAU single-game record by scoring 51 points in 1996. She scored even more, 25.0 points per game, as a junior. Back then, Johnson played a few different positions, including both guard spots. While she prefers the 2 spot, Johnson is a good enough ball-handler to play the point. At Cal, she has been a steady back up to senior starter Sherrise Smith at the point.
Johnson has more fun starting alongside Smith in the back-court, as she has most of this season. Smith's defensive tenacity almost matches Johnson's; she knows when Johnson wants to trap an opponent and is there to cover for Johnson if the latter goes for a steal and doesn't get it.
"I know she's going to help me pick up my player," Johnson said. "It allows me to be more aggressive."
It's not all about defense. Johnson has improved her numbers across the board, averaging more points (9.4), rebounds (4.6) and assists (1.9) than last season.
Both Stanley and Johnson point to her freshman experience and subsequent maturation as reasons for her improvement. Johnson gained valuable playing time mainly as a reserve in 28 games, though she logged 11 starts at shooting guard.
"The quality minutes she played as a freshman have really helped her be a confident sophomore," Stanley said. "She's playing a year ahead of herself. She's playing like a seasoned veteran."
While Johnson hasn't quite followed in Sheryl Swoopes' footsteps, she's doing okay.
"I'm in the right place for me," Johnson said.
BY DEAN CAPARAZ