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Wayne Cavadi | | February 17, 2016

DII Women's Basketball Notebook: Kiana Johnson leading VUU's Cinderella season

  Kiana Johnson won't stop breaking records while leading the Lady Panthers to 20-2 on the season.

Kiana Johnson adding to Virginia Union’s historic season

Virginia Union came into the 2015-16 Women’s basketball season on the heels of a 9-18 season. They entered this year with a new head coach, a few new transfers and were predicted to finish fourth in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association North Division.

Instead, head coach AnnMarie Gilbert has the Panthers sitting at No. 13 in the country behind the No. 2 scoring offense in the nation. This coming weekend they square off for the North Division championship and possibly the CIAA. 

“This tremendous turnaround definitely surpassed my expectations,” Gilbert said. “My goal is always to pursue championships, and I knew that we would be an improved team, but the success we have had in my very first season here at Virginia Union has been remarkable. Anytime you inherit a 9-18 team and inspire them to a national ranking and to the top of their division shows just how much the kids have bought in and believe in your philosophy and mission.”

Leading the charge is Kiana Johnson. Johnson leads the nation in scoring with a 28.3 scoring average, six points greater than her closest competition. The senior transfer from Michigan State set the VUU single season assist record with her 177th dish on February 3rd. 

“I came here [VUU] with a leap of faith,” Johnson said. “I believe this was a great decision because I have the freedom I need to play the type of basketball I’m capable of playing. I am beyond grateful for the coaching staff and my lovely teammates. They make me look good; we buy into the system that coach G has installed.”

This past weekend, she set even more records.

Johnson — in the Lady Panthers 85-68 victory over Lincoln (Pa.) University on Saturday — dropped 45 points while dishing out eight assists. Her 45 points surpassed Marquietta Randolph’s 21-year old record by one point. She also eclipsed Randolph’s single season mark of 587 points, set the same season. 

“It is a great feeling because these achievements were not goals that I set for myself but occurred because of my hard work and dedication,” Johnson said. “I have made many sacrifices this year to make an impact on the VUU women’s basketball program. My main goal was to turn the program around and bring back the winning culture they once had. Being the season scoring leader, as well as the single game leader would not have been possible without the supporting cast that I have in shooters, good post play, and drivers. To see the team come together the way we have and turn the program around in one year is the most rewarding and exciting accomplishment of them all.”

Johnson now has 622 points and 200 assists on the season, the first Lady Panthers to eclipse the 600/200 mark in program’s history.

“It has been and honor to coach a player with Kiana's skill set and ability,” Gilbert said. “In my opinion, she is arguably the best player and point guard in Division II, and should definitely be considered for National Player of the Year honors. Kiana is an unselfish player who plays both sides of the ball and makes everyone around her better. She leads the nation in scoring and steals [a remarkable 4.65 per game] and is second in assists. She leads the CIAA Conference in scoring, steals, assists, free throw percentage, and is one of the leaders in 3-point shooting. She is a "coach on the floor" who does so many things well and she has an extremely high basketball IQ.”

Adding to this record-breaking season is redshirt junior Lady Walker. This past Wednesday in a 91-55 victory over Bowie State, Walker ripped down 27 rebounds, breaking Sylvia Walker’s record of 26 set 30 years prior. She added 16 points in the contest. 

“Lady Walker is amazing,” Johnson said of her teammate. “She requires a lot of attention in the post which opens the lane for me. She is a rebounding machine, runs the floor well, and is a tough match up at the center position. Not sure if I am getting ahead of myself but I believe Lady and I are the best duo to come out of VUU and we might be the best in DII Women’s Basketball this year.”

It is certainly hard to argue. Combined they account for 46.3 points a game, 18 rebounds a night, 10.3 assists per game, and 5.86 steals a game. Throw in Walker's 44 blocks on the season, and they are a tough one-two punch. Walker would follow up her record-setting performance with a double-double on Saturday, her 13th of the season. She is currently second in the nation in rebounding at 13.2 a night.

“Lady Walker is a Pre-season All-CIAA player and returner from last year,” Gilbert said. “She is arguably the best post player in the CIAA conference. Lady has improved her scoring and rebounding from last season and she has remained in the top three in rebounding in the nation, and is first in the CIAA Conference.  Lady Walker is super athletic with guard speed and can really get out and run for easy baskets in transition.  She is a shot blocker and rebounder who has really improved her footwork and moves around the basket.  Lady Walker is a phenomenal talent.”

So here they are. VUU sits at 20-2 on the season. They have a spot in the USA Today Coaches Poll Top 25 for the first time since 2004, climbing from 24 to 13 over the course of the season. All that stands ahead of them from completing this Cinderella season atop the CIAA is a showdown this Saturday with Chowan.

Chowan sits tied in the standings at 7-1 in the division and 12-2 in the conference. Their one division loss, however, came at the hands of the Lady Panthers. That’s why this game is so important.

“We have tried to approach our schedule one game at a time with no greater emphasis put on any single game,” Gilbert said. “We want to study our opponents and strategically win every game.  

“Chowan is a very good team with a balanced attack coming from both their guard and post play. Although we have played well at home, we know that Chowan is a physical, hard-nosed, and well-coached team that will present a great challenge. We are excited for the match-up and are also looking forward to honoring our outstanding seniors during the game.”

“Our confidence level is high but we are humble with the understanding that any given night we can be beat,” Johnson said. “We respect all of our opponents knowing that we are their championship game. We cannot take a night off -- we know that the only way we will lose is if we beat ourselves. As long as we stay on the same page and continue to do what coach asks of us then we will be able to play in Indianapolis late in the season. As the season progresses we will play better teams and we have to be disciplined and we will be able to accomplish the common goal of winning a National Championship.”

Pittsburg State continues to roll against the Top 10

Pitt State locked up their third consecutive 20-win season when they took down yet another Top 20 team in the nation -- their third since January 27th -- this past week. The Gorillas continue to rise up the Top 25, now sitting at No. 19 as they head into this week’s action amid a ten-game winning streak. 

After taking down then-No. 16 ranked Emporia State on February 6th, the Gorillas came out and defeated then-No. 5 Fort Hays State. Pitt State won by 10 points behind a very balanced attack that saw all five starters reach double-digits.

Kylie Gafford — one of a mere two seniors left on the team from last year— continues to lead the charge. The senior forward took home her second consecutive MIAA Player of the Week Award this past week, an honor won four consecutive weeks by Pitt State since the winning streak started. Fellow senior Cathy Brugman and sophomore guard Mikaela Burgess — who leads PSU in scoring — won the previous two awards. 

Last week’s victories secured them a spot in Kansas City in the second round of the MIAA Tournament. This Wednesday, Pitt State travels to Central Missouri. They look to avenge their last loss, which came on their own home court at the hands of the Jennies.

Ranked teams collide in softball

This past weekend saw several of the nation’s top ranked softball teams go head-to-head.

No. 22 West Texas A & M continued their scorching hot start, sweeping the WT Invitational and getting to 10-0 on the season. This past Saturday’s matchup against No. 12 St. Mary’s saw the Lady Buffs trailing 6-1 heading into the fourth. A six-run rally, concluding with a Brittany Gehle grand slam gave them the lead for good.

This was the second consecutive Invitational the 2014 National Champions won in a clean sweep. The weekend prior, they won the Dixie State Invitational including two key victories over national runner-up and No. 2 Dixie State as well as No. 13 Humboldt State.

Speaking of Humboldt State, the Jacks improved to 9-1-1 with their first sweep of Cal State Monterey Bay — ranked No. 25 in the nation — since 2007. Katie Obbemma nearly missed a no-hitter in the first game of a double header on Saturday, keeping the Otters hitless until the final inning in a 3-0 performance. 

The University of North Alabama — who finished right outside the Top 25 receiving 27 votes in the NFCA Preseason Poll— continues to fare well against ranked teams. They opened their season on January 30th with a decisive 12-2 victory over reigning champion and No. 1 North Georgia and took two of three this past weekend against No. 6 Valdosta State. 

UNA — now 13-2 on the young season — swept Friday’s double header before falling to VSU on Saturday to open their Gulf South Conference schedule. Hillary Carpenter — now 5-1 on the season — hurled a 1-0 no-hitter to open the series on Friday. It was her second complete game shutout of the season, hurling a three-hitter earlier in the season against Mobile in the Gulf Shores Invitational.

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