After hitting back-to-back 3-pointers to take the lead, Erica Johnson looked to her teammates with joy on her face while heading down the court. Finally, Johnson was back in a place that felt familiar; she was thriving with her teammates and hitting big time shots.
Even though Ohio’s season opening matchup against Liberty on Wednesday was far from business as usual, for the first time in months, Johnson felt a glimpse of normalcy.
In her first appearance since last season’s Mid-American Conference Tournament quarterfinals, Johnson led the Bobcats to a 76-72 win over the Flames. Despite showing some rust, Johnson finished the game with 31 points and eight rebounds.
“I was kind of anxious for today,” Johnson said. “This is what I’ve been waiting for, so I was kind of overly excited instead of letting the game come to me.”
When Johnson first arrived at the arena, the vibe was all off. The benches were on the opposite side and spaced out, there was no band and to no surprise , the cardboard cutouts in the stands couldn’t infect her with excitement.
“It really felt like a scrimmage when we first came out,” Johnson said. “We ran out and nobody cheered for us. It’s just silent, like you have to come up with your own energy.”
A lack of crowd energy could be why Liberty (0-1) jumped out to a commanding lead and held Ohio’s offense to 0-for-7 on 3-point attempts in the first quarter.
Coming into the season having to replace Amani Burke and Katie Barker, Ohio coach Bob Boldon knew he had to test his team’s depth. 10 of Ohio’s 12 players had played by the end of the half.
“I got to figure what we have,” Boldon said. “I know we have talent, but I have to figure out how to use that talent, and I have to figure out how to get kids in position to be successful.”
Johnson did what she could to adapt to the new personnel surrounding her. Often, you could hear the redshirt junior calling out when and where other players needed to go.
Last season, the Bobcats ran mostly with the same personnel. Despite practicing last season with players like Caitlyn Kroll, Jasmine Hale and Abby Garnett, playing large game minutes with them forced Johnson to adapt.
“It was interesting to see how they adjusted,” Johnson said. “ It was kind of different for me because I feel like last year’s team played together for a long time ... It was a lot to adjust to for them but as well as for me because things that [Amani] Burke do they don’t do. So it was kind of difficult, but I think we’ll figure it out.”
Trailing late into the third quarter, Johnson couldn’t afford to be her usual passing self. With backcourt partner CeCe Hooks (18 points, seven rebounds) slowly approaching foul trouble, Johnson had to be the engine in Ohio’s offense. Johnson (10-25 fg) took 41% of Ohio’s field goal attempts.
Once Johnson took the reigns of the offense, the Bobcats clicked and put together a 14-2 run to close out the third quarter. Ohio wouldn’t trail again.
“I felt like that was our old us,“ Johnson said.
Johnson was all smiles postgame. She had been waiting to play again since the MAC Tournament was canceled back in March. Johnson believes that the Bobcats would’ve won the tournament had it continued, but as her mom has told her time and again, she can only worry about what she can control.
And Johnson was in full control in the second half.
20 of Johnson’s 31 points and seven of her eight rebounds came in the second half. When the team needed her the most, she stepped up.
Johnson has come a long way since arriving in Athens four years ago. She’s developed from a sixth player, to a starter, to a star to finally one of the best players in the mid-majors.
None of that matters to Johnson, though. She’s only two days away from playing No.22 ranked Notre Dame in what is bound to be one of the biggest games of her career. This could be the opportunity for Johnson to show the world where she ranks against elite power five ballplayers.
But that’s not what’s important to her.
“I’m just worried about getting the dub.”