Gone are Kelsey Plum, Chantel Osahor, Katie Collier, coach Mike Neighbors and almost every other UW player, but junior Hannah Johnson said she is ready to focus on ‘How can I help Washington get better?’
Even die-hard fans of the Washington women’s basketball team will be hard-pressed to recognize anyone on the team this season.
But you might remember No. 1.
That’s Hannah Johnson, who spent the past two seasons with the Huskies performing the mundane tasks that endeared her to former star-studded teammates, the coaching staff and UW followers.
She set the screens that opened the lane for Kelsey Plum, the school’s all-time leading scorer. She boxed out beneath the rim, but often Chantel Osahor, UW’s all-time rebounding leader, cleaned the glass.
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When Katie Collier got into early foul trouble, Johnson came in on relief and provided a steady defensive presence in the post.
Plum, Osahor and Collier – the pillars of a four-year UW dynasty that went 98-41 while appearing in three NCAA tournament appearances, two Sweet 16s and the school’s only Final Four – are gone.
In fact, almost everyone who played an integral role in last season’s team that advanced to the Elite Eight and finished 29-6 – a school record for wins – is no longer with the team.
“We’re brand new,” Johnson said. “Starting over. Clean slate and whatever cliché you want to call it. … Here’s the thing, though: We may not be the most talented team, but we’re going to be the hardest-working team.”
Johnson said that to new coach Jody Wynn on the day she replaced Mike Neighbors, who left after four years for Arkansas.
“That was the same day I said to myself, I’m the leader now and I need to step up,” Johnson said. “With the new coach coming in, I wanted her to know she has someone that she can trust. And someone who she knows she can feel secure about taking that leadership role. I just kind of stepped outside of my box.”
They spoke for nearly an hour that night. Wynn, who spent the previous eight seasons at Long Beach State, had briefly recruited Johnson, at Bishop Alemany High in Los Angeles.
“We just talked about who she was and who I am,” Wynn said. “Just trying to start a relationship as a player and a coach. I thought it was a very mature thing to do. Adversity struck. Instead of having a pity party, let’s go. Move on. Next play. We talk about that as a team.
“I didn’t spend the time trying to recruit her at all. I spent the time trying to get to know her. And in turn it’s developed into a pretty good relationship.”
Johnson is Washington’s leading returner in scoring (3.5 points per game), rebounds (3.7), assists (0.5) and minutes (16.5).
It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
The Huskies had hoped to turn the team over to sophomore guard Aarion McDonald and senior sharpshooter Natalie Romeo, who averaged 9.8 and 9.3 points respectively last season. But McDonald transferred to Arizona, and Romeo is out indefinitely due to an undisclosed medical reason.
Washington is also without junior center Deja Strother, who is expected to miss a significant amount of time because of injury.
Meanwhile, guards Kelli Kingma and Breanna Ruiz retired due to injury and forward Gigi Garcia will miss her second season because of a knee injury.
The walking wounded included Johnson, who broke her ring and pinkie fingers during an offseason pickup game. She was forced to sit out six weeks and missed a month of training camp.
“It was meant to happen to calm me down,” Johnson said. “This summer there were a couple of times where I was pushing myself too hard. My legs were shot. I was overworking myself. So I had to slow down. I took it as this was meant to be. I think this is going to make me better.”
Presumably, Washington, which was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 preseason coaches poll, will lean heavily on Johnson and a cadre of unproven players, including sophomores Mai-Loni Henson and Amber Melgoza.
“Hannah is all in, 100 percent with everything that we’re about,” Wynn said. “Every word that we say, it’s total eye contact. Whatever we ask her to do or her team to do, it’s without any excuses or without any doubt that it’s not going to happen or not going to get done.
“She’s one of those players that you love to coach because she’s going to run through a wall for you and her teammates. She has so much passion for the game and so much passion for this team and the university. She bleeds purple and gold more than anybody I’ve ever met.”
It remains to be seen if Johnson can make the transition from role player to scorer.
“I don’t want to focus on teams are going to play me a certain way and they’re going to try and take me out of my game,” she said. “No. I’m going to focus on what I can control and that’s my effort and energy that I give the game.
“Mostly I’m focusing on my team. How can I help Washington get better? … Sometimes it’s not going to matter what the scoreboard says. What’s going to matter is if we do better this game than we did the last game.”
Once a week, Johnson talks to Plum and seeks advice on how she can be a better leader. The former UW star gives tips before cautioning to always be a little selfish and never stop working on her game.
“I had a front-row seat the past two years in how to be a leader, so I’m taking all of that and putting it into this team,” Johnson said. “I can’t control wins or losses, but I can control how much effort and energy I give. And they’ll get everything I got.”