Ka’lia Johnson started the season as Duke’s sixth guard in the rotation.
Come NCAA tournament time, she found herself in the starting lineup and playing a pivotal role.
The junior guard scored 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting off the bench in 29 minutes in Duke’s final game of the regular season—a 64-60 loss at then-No. 14 North Carolina. Johnson was one of Duke’s few bright spots during the contest and showed she was ready to pick up the slack with seniors Chloe Wells and Chelsea Gray and sophomore Alexis Jones lost for the season due to injuries.
Johnson’s ability to fill part of the void left by the trio of guards stemmed from her ability to continue pushing herself even when she wasn’t playing big minutes early in the season.
“You just always go out expecting to [make] a bigger contribution to your team,” Johnson said. “I always told myself ‘No matter how many minutes I get, I’m going to play my hardest.’ You just always have to be ready. That’s what I’ve lived by. [Assistant coach Candace Jackson and assistant coach Hernando Planells] helped me a lot with that.”
In the 29 games before the North Carolina game, the Chester, Va., native averaged 3.1 points on 50 percent shooting and 2.2 rebounds per contest in just 9.2 minutes per game. Johnson made sure she gave it her all when she was on the court.
“The majority of the time, I was ready,” Johnson said. “I either stole the ball or made a key rebound or key put-back. Having that mindset whether I played or not kept me ready for the game and kept me energetic to cheer my teammates on.”
Normally thought of as a defensive stopper, Johnson showed against the Tar Heels that she was ready to emerge as an offensive playmaker and take advantage of increased minutes.
She started Duke’s first ACC tournament game in the quarterfinals against Georgia Tech and knocked down two 3-pointers in the first half, including one just before the buzzer that helped the Blue Devils seize control of the game. After knocking down just five treys in her first 84 games at Duke, Johnson showed off a much improved shooting stroke against the Yellow Jackets.
She did not cool off against North Carolina in the semifinals, knocking down a key 3-pointer with 5:01 left in the game to tie the score and making two free throws to put Duke ahead and help the team close out a 66-61 comeback win. Johnson’s ability to continue draining perimeter shots will be crucial for a team with only one true perimeter shooter left—Tricia Liston.
“It was something I practiced during the year, so it was cool to see it come into play and for it to be so crucial,” Johnson said. “I know in the Georgia Tech game hitting the one before the half [was big], and in the [North Carolina] game, hitting the one in the corner to tie it up [was huge]. It was something I’ve been practicing all year.”
Johnson’s perimeter shooting was not the only part of her game that looked revitalized in Greensboro. After handing out just eight assists during the season, she dished out nine helpers in three ACC tournament games and spent much more time playing point guard.
“[She’s] great. She’s always been ready when her number is called, and she hasn’t played point guard much before this year, but she’s come in and done a great job,” Liston said. “On the court, we work that point guard position well together. She’s really grown a lot as a person and a player since I’ve known her.”
Although she committed five turnovers in Duke’s 69-53 loss to then-No. 2 Notre Dame in the championship game of the tournament, Johnson facilitated the Blue Devils’ effectiveness in the paint early in the contest.
Duke controlled the pace of the first half and at one point held a 20-6 edge in points in the paint because of Johnson’s determination to get the ball inside. Like the rest of the Blue Devils, however, she struggled down the stretch, but Johnson proved she was ready to be a starter as Duke enters the NCAA tournament.
“As soon as she had her opportunity, she just seized it,’ senior forward Haley Peters said. “She has been so aggressive, handling the ball well and attacking. She made some huge plays in the Notre Dame game and has a lot of confidence in herself. She has not let anything going on around her affect that.”
Johnson’s mentality entering the Big Dance is motivated by all of Duke’s hardships and her determination to help the Blue Devil seniors finally get to the Final Four.
Having made it to two straight Elite Eights, Johnson knows the taste of getting close to the final weekend well.
“It puts a lot of gas on the fire to really come out and just kick some butt,” Johnson said. “It’s just a whole new breed of basketball during the tournament—it’s very physical, it’s very long, the rest days are shorter and shorter. Only the strong survive. We’ve gone through a lot to know what it feels like to have the strong survive.”