Jessra Johnson isn’t known for her defense. In fact, the freshman forward for the Missouri women’s basketball team is almost known for her lack of it.
“Her defense, I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Missouri coach Cindy Stein said. “She needs to get a lot, lot better. It’s just plain and simple.”
Johnson’s working on it.
“I do extra conditioning and an extra weight program, I guess you call it,” Johnson said. “I get in there extra and work out with other people, and it’s just trying to get stronger and move faster and to improve my reaction time.”
The decision to send Johnson off the bench and onto the court takes planning. Stein said Johnson’s playing time is correlated with the matchups presented by the opponent.
Averaging 10 minutes, Johnson has played in all but one game for the Tigers and usually is productive with her time on the court.
In the win at then-No. 19 Nebraska, Johnson played her only eight minutes in the first half. But in that time, she made two 3-pointers, had four rebounds and even had a block.
Because the Tigers were in early foul trouble and senior guard Tiffany Brooks was playing injured, Stein said the time was right for the freshman.
“She’s a tough matchup and she’s not the easiest person to guard,” Stein said. “So that can be to our benefit, too.”
Johnson is often one of the first reserve players to rotate in, but she doesn’t just come in for the same player each game. She can replace seniors center EeTisha Riddle, forward Carlynn Savant and occasionally Brooks, a shooting guard. Not only does her defense have to change based on her position, but her offense must change, as well.
“If I go in for Tish, I know I have to be a presence on the inside,” Johnson said. “If I go in for Carlynn, I know I have to turn on my shooter mode. If I go in for Tiffany, which is rarely, if I go to the three spot, I know that I have to be able to cut and stuff like that.
“It’s just playing different roles, whatever that may be.”
Finding a matchup for Johnson against Kansas State (16-10, 4-9 Big 12) tonight shouldn’t be too hard. The Tigers (16-10, 4-9 Big 12) lost to the Wildcats, 81-66, in Manhattan, Kan. on January 13. When the teams last met, Johnson played 12 minutes, and scored the only two points off the bench.
“The whole K-State game, we were just horrible,” Stein said. “It’s kind of similar to Oklahoma State. We weren’t there to play. Those are the two games that I could pick out of our schedule that we just weren’t ready, and I can’t say we didn’t try, but we just weren’t there. Obviously, we want to set the record straight.”
Brooks came away with 26 points that night before injuring her ankle and coming out of the game. In her freshman year, Brooks played four games with the Wildcats before transferring to Missouri that season, and Stein said a bit of rivalry is felt.
“Well you know, it’s going to be interesting,” Stein said. “Tiffany always gets up for K-State obviously, but she gets up for every game. I mean, she was powerful in the Nebraska game, even though she was sick. She started off well and played good defense.”
Although the ankle injury appears to be healed, Brooks is battling a severely bruised right knee. She still scored the Tigers’ first 11 points against Nebraska on Saturday.
Johnson, who is from Fayette, was one of the best high school girls basketball players in the state, amassing more than 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 blocks in her four-year career. She isn’t too familiar with sitting the bench, but said she’s resigned herself to it.
“I don’t really have a problem with it, if we win,” Johnson said. “How I see it is Coach knows everyone better than I do, so if she throws out there someone better than me to go in then, I don’t have a problem with it.
“I mean, coming from playing all the time, to not playing, most people would have a problem with not playing, but I can sit the bench just like everyone else. I’m not too good to sit down.”
When seven seniors roll off the roster at the end of the season, Johnson will be one of the more experienced and versatile members left on the team. It would be easy to set her sights on the next three years.
“I’m mainly just focused on the present,” Johnson said. “I’m focused on the (Big 12 Conference) tournament. The game tomorrow, a game this week. I think about the future, but not as much as I think about the season right now.”