LSU women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey didn’t recall the circumstances that led her to pulling then freshman guard Flau’jae Johnson out of a game last season.
It was early in and Johnson was in the midst of establishing herself as one of the team’s key contributors, starting in all of her team’s 36 games that went through the national championship.
But there was one game in particular when Mulkey decided to substitute her in a game when Johnson headed to the bench and flung a towel over her head.
Johnson was used to going to distance at Sprayberry High in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia, a place where she earned a reputation as one of the nation’s top players and had her jersey retired.
When Mulkey decided to take her out of a game it was done to with the intent of giving Johnson a breather to preserve her body against the rigors for a freshmen dealing with her first full college season.
“The game’s over and I get in the locker room, and I light her up,” Mulkey said after Thursday’s 92-72 win over Missouri. “I said, ‘Don’t do that. That’s bad looking. Why did you do that’? I’m sure she was upset because she came out of the game.
“I looked at her and asked if she thought she would come here and think you were going to play 40 minutes a game every game? She looks at me and said yes,” Mulkey added. “That’s the innocence of Flau’jae. She now understands you can’t play 40 minutes every game. She’s been able to always do that. She just has a joy about playing this game that is just contagious.”
Johnson was named the Southeastern Conference’s Freshman of the Year. She averaged 11.0 points, 6.2 rebounds, shot 50.4% from the floor and could be a fierce perimeter defender.
But Mulkey believed she could get more out of the 5-foot-10 Johnson and she’s delivered. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring at 12.6 points after her season-high of 24 against Missouri. However, she’s been more than just a scorer, averaging 6.1 rebounds (third on the team) to go with 2.7 assists and 2.7 steals.
“I kind of learned last year. I was in a lot of big SEC games,” Johnson said following the Missouri game. “This year I knew how fast it was going to be up and down. You get tired. I was like that when I was a freshman, just being able to gut it out. This is only going to be good for us because we’re going to be in such good shape. We’re going to be able to play these minutes and play hard. That’s what wins championships. When you don’t take those plays off, when you don’t have those lapses because you’re tired. Once we get that in check, I think we’ll be on the path to becoming a great team.”
Johnson’s game has evolved to that of an all-around player that’s been a catalyst for No. 7 LSU (14-1, 1-0) which visits Ole Miss (11-3, 1-0) at 2 p.m. Sunday. The game will be televised by ESPN and carried locally by 107.3-FM.
“What she did last year that a lot of them do as freshman, they think the world revolves around shots,” Mulkey said of Johnson. “She’s trying to be that all-around player. She’s trying to get you rebounds, she’s trying to guard the best player on the perimeter for us because she does have the most experience. Just making her a better all-around player and making her understand that you’re not going to play a perfect game.”
LSU offense was stiff-armed early against Missouri’s 2-3 zone, but it was Johnson and Aneesah Morrow (game-high 25 points) that carried the team during those moments for a 20-19 lead. Johnson didn’t settle for jump shots, instead being aggressive in driving to the goal and also converted a pair of steals into layups.
“It’s taking what the defense gives you,” Johnson said. “Like coach says, shot fake and go by them and that worked. I kept doing it.”
Johnson was quiet on the offensive end in the second quarter with two points but delivered the biggest play with just over six minutes to play and Missouri leading, 27-24.
Grace Slaughter was driving in for what appeared to be an uncontested layup in transition and potential five-point lead – which would have been their biggest of the half. Johnson, though, converged on Slaughter from behind on an all-out sprint, blocking her shot attempt off the backboard and into the hands of Hailey Van Lith. She found Mikayah Williams who found Angel Reese for a three-point play on the end of the floor and a tied game at 27-27.
“I felt that was the momentum boost for our team,” Morrow said. “After that it was running in transition. Of course, that bucket by Angel and the and one, helped our momentum as well.”
Johnson contributed a putback but missed a foul shot for a 31-30 edge with 4:11 left to halftime and LSU took a 39-32 lead at the break on an 8-0 run over the last 3 ½ minutes.
LSU carried over the momentum from its finish to the third quarter which proved to be moving time for the Tigers.
Missouri got as close as 47-41 on a five-point possession when Hayley Frank made two intentional foul shots against Reese and came off a screen for a 3-pointer at the 7:33 mark.
LSU got the five points back in 30 seconds with Morrow scoring from the lane and Mikaylah Williams burying a 3-pointer for an 11-point lead (52-41).
Johnson had a team-high 10 points in the quarter, including a 3-pointer on a pass from Reese, and she converted a steal into a three-point play during an 11-0 run which Reese capped on another basket, courtesy of a Johnson assist, for a 60-41 lead with just under five minutes showing in the quarter.
“It’s five dogs on the floor at all times,” Johnson said. “We felt like this was our time. Everybody always says, ‘cupcake schedule’. When we play somebody, we really have to put it on the floor and show who we want to be. We’re not there yet. If we’re dogs, we’ve got to be dogs.”
LSU outscored Missouri, 32-17, in the quarter for a 71-49 cushion. They went on to twice lead by 25 points in the fourth quarter, four of which came from Johnson.
“From start to finish I thought Flau’jae was outstanding,” Mulkey said.