Coming off of its second Division I state runner-up finish in three years, there was a big question regarding the Notre Dame girls basketball team entering 2017-18.
How would the Eagles replace their superb guard tandem of All-Ohioan Bre Hampton-Bey and fellow four-year varsity player Mariah Copeland?
Both players graduated last spring and are now playing at Division I college programs — Hampton-Bey at Massachusetts, Copeland at Toledo.
Notre Dame's Kailah Johnson shoots in front of Rogers' Tanaziah Hines during a game earlier this season. Johnson, a 5-8 shooting guard, averages 9.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 1.9 steals per game.
Tenth-year Eagles coach Travis Galloway’s vision was that the void would be filled by committee, with all the returning players raising their games individually.
Crucial on that committee has been the “Johnson & Johnson” junior guard duo of Jala Johnson and Kailah Johnson, who despite many assumptions to the contrary over the years are not twin sisters or even related to one another.
“They’re our primary ball-handlers and they make a ton of our decisions on our plays,” Galloway said. “They’ve moved into the roles of Bre and Mariah.
“They have done a pretty good job as the season has progressed. Obviously, Bre and Mariah were exceptional players, but Jala and Kailah have done a good job of expanding their games.”
The Johnsons may not be related, but they are close friends. They attended Holland Elementary together between grades 1-6, and were members of the same dance group during those years.
On the court for Notre Dame, however, they were not so close. Galloway’s lineup combinations rarely had them on the court together before this season. When thrust into the role of filling the backcourt void, things did not initially mesh well.
“Early on we really struggled,” Galloway said. “Everybody knew we had to replace Bre and Mariah, and it seemed like everybody was trying to do it themselves.
“Both Jala and Kailah wanted to be that person that filled that big void rather than do it by committee. We got exposed in game one with it, which was probably the best thing that could’ve happened.
“As the season progressed, and they got more comfortable playing with each other, their games have exploded. They’re both playing extremely well now because they’re doing what they do best instead of trying to be someone else.”
Notre Dame's Jala Johnson shoots over Whitmer's Jenna Thomas during a game earlier this year. She is leading the balanced Eagles in scoring this year at 11.8 points per game.
After some growing pains, a few heart-to-hearts with the coaching staff, and time to discover each other’s games, Johnson and Johnson have the Eagles soaring in the right direction.
Notre Dame, 17-4 overall, has clinched its seventh straight Three Rivers Athletic Conference championship at 13-0 with one TRAC game left Thursday against rival St. Ursula. The Eagles were ranked No. 10 in the final Associated Press regular-season Division I poll, and now set their sights on another deep tournament run.
Since the TRAC’s beginning in 2011-12, Notre Dame is 159-32 overall in seven seasons, and an impressive 35-6 in tournament games.
The Eagles have reached the state final four in five of the last six seasons under Galloway (203-52, 10th season), including D-I state runner-up finishes in 2015 and 2017.
The 5-foot-8 Jala Johnson is leading the balanced Eagles in scoring this year at 11.8 points per game. Inheriting Hampton-Bey’s point guard position, she has also contributed 4.6 rebounds and team highs of 2.9 assists and 3.1 steals.
“We were both trying to fill Bre and Mariah’s spots as one, and we didn’t really know how to do that,” Jala Johnson said. “We were trying to force the issue. But now, as the season has gone on, we’re much better at that.
“It was a little bit of both of us being selfish, and we didn’t know how to share the ball with each other. The past two years, we weren’t on the court too much together, so our chemistry wasn’t there.
“Since me and Kailah have gotten our stuff together, I think the team plays way better together.”
Kailah Johnson, a 5-8 shooting guard, averages 9.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 1.9 steals. She leads ND with 34 made 3-pointers.
“In the summer and early in the season we had a hard time trying to adjust because we did lose two big players,” Kailah Johnson said. “They were gone, so we had to make offensive changes, defensive changes, and we had to get better at both ends.
“We both knew that we had to fill their shoes. They had so many good accomplishments, and we felt like we had to do that too. Sometimes we tried to do too much. Now we’ve finally settled down and realized we needed to be ourselves. We’ve worked on it and throughout the season it’s getting better.”
Jala is the younger sister of former Rogers All-Ohio player Akienreh Johnson, who is now playing at Michigan.
“Jala runs the point guard for us and does a good job of running the offense, getting people involved, and picking and choosing when she needs to be aggressive offensively as far as scoring,” Galloway said. “Kailah has become a good 3-point shooter for us as well as being able to get to the basket.
“They both have done a good job of filling scoring roles. They go about it in different ways. Jala has more of a mid-range pull-up [shooting] game, and Kailah can knock down 3s and get to the basket. They play well off each other, which is a chemistry that wasn’t there at the beginning of the year.”
The play of the Johnson & Johnson duo, especially lately, has bolstered a talented starting lineup that also includes senior post player Ariel Cummings, junior wing Ashley Barron, and junior forward Maelyn Kizer.
The 6-2 Cummings, who had to sit out the first half of the 2016-17 season after transferring to ND from Ottawa Hills, emerged as a force in last season’s regionals and especially in the 2017 state semifinals, when she had a breakout 28-point, 14-rebound effort in the Eagles’ 75-59 thumping of top-ranked and previously unbeaten Newark.
That output raised plenty of eyebrows and earned Cummings increased recruiting attention. In November, she signed to play at Toledo.
Barron, a three-sport star whose main focus is soccer, has been a steady varsity contributor for three seasons. She is averaging 7.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 2.5 steals.
Barron recently committed to the University of Cincinnati for soccer. She also excels in track and field.
The 5-10 Kizer, the younger sister of former Central Catholic All-Ohioan and current Cleveland Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer, is a physical presence inside at both ends of the court, and a proficient playmaker with her interior passing ability. She averages 4.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 1.7 steals.
“As we get close to the tournament, I really think we’re playing well at both ends of the floor,” Galloway said. “Our ball movement offensively has really progressed, and defensively our kids are aware of how good we can be, and they take some pride in that.
“Hopefully, it pans out like it has in those other years where we made a deep tournament run.”
Added Kailah Johnson: “The team is doing really well. I feel like we’ve all made improvement, and we play every game like it’s our last. We’re ready for that tournament run. We need to trust the process and empty the bucket. Leave it all out on the floor.”
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