By Carlos Toro
The women’s basketball team’s first test in the 2016-17 season was a road game against local rival Princeton, a team that routinely sits among the Ivy League’s best. Not only did the Broncs beat the Tigers in front of their home fans, but they did so thanks, in large part, to freshman guard Stella Johnson’s impressive debut. Her 20-point, 6-steal performance against Princeton shocked many, but it was only a prelude for an impressive rookie season thus far.
In front of almost 800 fans at the Jadwin Gym on the Princeton campus, Johnson led the Broncs to a 70-62 win on Nov. 11. In her second game, against Lafayette on Nov. 14, Johnson didn’t score 20 points, but she notched eight steals, solidifying her as one of the breakout freshmen in the conference.
For any freshman college basketball player, those first games can be nerve-wracking. But Johnson said she didn’t feel the jitters or pressure to perform, though her hot start came as a shock to her.
“Not at all [did I expect to have 14 steals in the first two games],” Johnson said. “I thought I would be a bit more nervous and I didn’t expect to have those games at all.”
Rider Head Coach Lynn Milligan said she noticed composure in Johnson’s play from the start of the season, a far cry from the usual adjustment freshman players must make.
“I don’t see the normal nervousness in Stella that you see with freshmen,” Milligan said. “I haven’t seen that with her. She’s a very balanced and even-keeled kid. She doesn’t allow herself to get too high or too low. She really tries to do her job on a daily basis. You’ll see her on the court practicing, shooting in the facility even before I show up. She’s always wanting to refine her skills and that says a lot for a freshman.”
Johnson, who has won MAAC Rookie of the Week honors twice and was awarded the United States Basketball Writers Association National Freshman of the Week award back in December, is averaging 9.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and an impressive 2.8 steals per game while shooting higher than 50 percent from the field.
But when she evaluated her freshman season thus far, she wasn’t all that impressed with what she has accomplished.
“I think I did all right,” Johnson said. “I know I had a low in the middle of the season, but my coaches helped me get my confidence back and my teammates helped a lot too and I think I had an OK season and hopefully I do better next season.”
Johnson endured a rough, eight-game stretch in January, when she averaged less than five points per game. She has since rebounded, scoring 27 points over her last two games.
Yet her normally calm demeanor is nowhere to be found on the court. Defensively, she has quickly morphed into one of the team’s most ferocious defenders.
Johnson’s ability to carry the defensive momentum is one of the key reasons Rider is tied for first place in the conference standings as of the first week of February, almost four months after the Broncs were picked to finish 10th in the conference preseason poll. It’s also a reason the Broncs have a chance at winning 20 games in a season for the second time in program history. Milligan said her defensive skills come from her intuition.
“I think Stella brings a natural instinct onto the court,” Milligan said. “She understands the game and does a lot of things on the court that a lot of people don’t see. I think she has a real good feeling for the game and to have someone at her young age understand the game is very impressive. It’s the way she was in high school and it’s the way she was in Amateur Athletic Union. She has that extra little something that you can’t quite put your finger on, but you know it’s there. We saw that while she was in high school and has translated that to the Division-I level pretty quickly and it’s very nice to see.”
Johnson said she was a little bit surprised to see the team be in this position at this point in the season.
“I know coach expected we would be where we are at right now,” Johnson said. “I think we’re surprised at how the games have turned out and where we are right now, but our hard work put us here.”
The relationship between Johnson and Rider began right around Johnson’s junior year of high school. Johnson said Rider was supportive of her and went to most of her games at Morris Catholic High School in Denville.
The communication from the two parties was constant, and Milligan said she and the team really wanted to bring Johnson into the fold. Johnson said she liked the proximity between Rider and her home, the relatively small size of the school and the team’s coaching staff.
Once Johnson joined the team, Milligan said the team embraced the freshman and has been playing better with her on the floor.
“When you’re recruiting, it’s easy to see the people that score all the points,” Milligan said. “But we always try to find what we consider to be diamonds in the rough or players that we see have skills inside them that we feel we can develop into great players at this level. Stella had that and we set our sights on her really early. We were really happy that she chose to go to Rider. We put a lot of effort because we think she can come and help us a lot and she has done that.”
Johnson said this team is full of heart and determination, evidenced by the team’s current four-game win streak and the team’s last three wins being decided on the final possession.
Although she has been one of the key focuses on this year’s team, Johnson said she learned a lot from the various upperclassmen on the squad. When she was initially analyzing the team, her opinion of the team was not great, but after spending almost a full season with them, she has become one of the group’s core of great players, according to Milligan.
“Last year, looking at their record, I thought, ‘They’re probably just not working together well,’” Johnson said. “But I always had confidence in them. When I first saw this team, I thought they were a great team. Robin Perkins, Taylor Wentzel, Julia Duggan, they’re all big parts of this team and coach said I could help them in many ways on the court. On the court, they taught me that it’s OK to mess up on the court because they have my back.”
Even though Johnson is just a freshman, Milligan sees a lot of potential in her and has high hopes she will morph into the team’s future leader. She believes that as Johnson keeps getting experience at the Division-I level of college basketball, she will improve tremendously.
“When you’re a freshman, there is no ceiling,” Milligan said. “Her progression is going to be key on offseason and summer workouts and developing to be a future leader of this team. It’s about pushing her teammates and keeping the expectation high and continuing our trend upwards. I think her individual skill set is going to get better and better. She’s athletically gifted enough to make amazing plays. Stella is going to be a big part of this program’s future.”