COLUMBIA — As a freshman on a senior-laden squad last season, Jessra Johnson never started, averaging 3.6 points and 2.7 rebounds in fewer than 10 minutes per game off the bench.
After eight seniors graduated, Johnson’s playing time has skyrocketed as a sophomore. Although she jumps back and forth between the starting lineup and the first spot off the bench, Johnson leads the team in scoring, at 16.2 per game, and rebounding, at 8.7 per contest.
While much of the improved statistics can be attributed to more playing time, those around the Missouri women’s basketball program saw this coming no matter how often she stepped on the court.
“She helped us out off the bench a lot, contributing key rebounds,” Missouri coach Cindy Stein said. “That just wasn’t there last year, with Tish (EeTisha Riddle, one of the since-graduated seniors) being the main focus of our offense. This year, she definitely looks to score more, and take advantage of those opportunities.”
Junior Alyssa Hollins, the only returning starter from last year’s team, has had a prime view of Johnson’s quick maturation on the court.
“I think Jessra came in with the ability to score and rebound the way she has this year, she just needed the opportunity to get on the floor,” Hollins said. “Usually, you have to wait a year or two to get your time, but she paid her dues. She got some experience under her belt, and now she’s taking advantage.”
The Tigers host the 30th Annual CenturyTel Tiger Tournament this weekend at Mizzou Arena. Missouri opens against Mississippi Valley State at 7 tonight, and will play either Stephen F. Austin or Alcorn State at 6:30 p.m. Saturday. The Tigers games can be heard on KFRU/1400 AM.
Johnson has put up some impressive individual numbers early this season. She put up a career-high 22 points on Nov. 15 against Eastern Illinois, then had 24 just more than a week later in Missouri’s last-second 74-73 win over Robert Morris. But she doesn’t only score. She had 19 rebounds to go along with her 22 points against Eastern Illinois, and has led the team in rebounding three times and blocks twice this season.
Even though the numbers might seem big to an outsider, Johnson knew she could score and rebound all along.
“It’s what I’ve been doing for a long time, as long as I’ve been playing basketball,” Johnson said. “Scoring and rebounding is just more important now that I’ve got more of an impact on the team.”
The 6-foot-1 Johnson isn’t small by women’s basketball standards, but she’s no giant either. Yet she spent the majority of her basketball career rebounding with the best of them. She finished her high school career at Fayette with 1,322 rebounds, the most ever in the state. She also finished with 2,157 points, the second-highest mark in Missouri.
“We need her presence in the paint,” Stein said. “She’s such a strong rebounder, so that will always be a role for her. Obviously as a scoring threat, we need her to step up.”
Even though her role has increased dramatically on the court, Johnson is still in the developing stages as a leader for her teammates.
“I’ve been told I’m a leader on and off the court, but I don’t think I am one,” she said. “If people see me as a leader by the way I play, I’m not going to fight that.”
She defers to the more experienced Hollins, saying that Hollins leads vocally and by example, but coaches and teammates are trying to make her come out of her shell nonetheless.
“I think she’s learning that she can affect people and she can influence the other girls,” Hollins said. “Some of the girls do look to her as a motivator, and she’s learning that she has to come in and work hard every day because people are looking to her now.”
Stein agreed, but warns that Johnson needs a little more schooling when it comes to knowing when to joke and when to focus.
“I think Jessra has the potential to be a very good leader,” Stein said. “The key for Jessra is that the kids really respond to her, she just needs to know how to pick her moments a little better. She’s learning how to put all that together, and the girls are responding to that.”
While the Tigers have been both hot and cool in their 4-3 start to the season, Johnson has been consistent. They are fighting youth, inexperience and a lack of respect, but the players know they can lean on Johnson when it counts.
“As long as we don’t listen to our rankings, or listen about our height or our youth, but just go out there and play basketball, it doesn’t matter how young or how inexperienced we are,” Johnson said.