After battling injuries, a healthy Johnson emerging as a team leader
Despite not beginning its regular season until November, the Michigan women’s basketball team has been hard at work in Ann Arbor.
The team is working tirelessly to continue to mesh as a unit and is looking to break through to the Sweet Sixteen after ending its season in the Round of 32 in back-to-back NCAA Tournaments.
A major change this season will be the losses of center Hallie Thome and guard Nicole Munger — both of whom graduated. The two served as integral figures over the past four years, and were the heart and soul of the team last season as senior leaders. This season, senior guard Akienreh Johnson, who figures to slot in as the team’s starting shooting guard, is more than ready to step up and lead a new group of Wolverines.
“(Nicole) Munger really helped me a lot because she knew I was eventually gonna be a leader,” Johnson said. “So, I kinda went under her wing. I asked her a lot of questions.”
Along with senior forward Kayla Robbins, Johnson will be one of just two seniors on this year’s roster. Despite suffering two ACL tears in three years as well as sustaining a hand injury in 2018, Johnson continued to remain a vocal figure in the locker room. In 2019, Johnson was a major impact player for Michigan, entering the starting lineup and playing at both guard spots to key a February run that saw the Wolverines go 7-1 — eventually propelling them to an NCAA Tournament berth.
“I think being a leader comes from respect,” Johnson said. “And I think our team really respects me a lot just from where I’ve come from, injuries I’ve had, adversity that I’ve (fought) through, so I think most of it is the respect aspect from the team.”
Unlike last season, Johnson will slot into Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico’s starting five right off the bat. With her new role as one of the team’s primary options, Johnson hopes to be a contributor on both ends of the floor.
“I want to be the primary scorer, primary defender, and primary rebounder,” Johnson said. “I want to make sure that Coach Arico can trust me in the game at any point.”
As Johnson continues to refine her game in Ann Arbor, she has also had an opportunity to work with and mentor the incoming freshman class, which includes guards Maddie Nolan and Michelle Sidor and center Izabel Varejão.
“Everything we do we always make sure that they have confidence,” Johnson said. “Freshman year is tough, basketball on and off the court is tough, so we make sure that we’re always there, make sure they always have someone to talk to.”
Johnson said that the team’s summer workouts have gone well so far, even reporting that their strength and conditioning coach had to adjust the sprint routines because their sprint times were too fast. Sophomore point guard Amy Dilk says that the competition aspect of the summer has brought out the best in the team.
“We’re pushing each other,” Dilk said, “but we’re also having fun with it.”
Johnson speaks very highly of Michigan’s roster for the upcoming season, noting that the team has very few holes in its roster.
“There’s not a weak link on our team,” Johnson said. “Everyone is kind of the same. Almost the same size, same build, same intensity, same speed, so it’s not really like a weak link.”
With Johnson entering the season healthy after a summer of training, the team is hoping that it can finally get over the hump and make a deep tournament run.