The voice always seems to come wafting from somewhere around the gymnasium.
For Kennesaw State women’s basketball coach Octavia Blue, the sound of Amani Johnson instructing her teammates — often coming mere seconds after she has just spoken herself — has come to provide a semblance of reassurance in her second season leading the ASUN Conference program.
“She’s one of the most cerebral players I’ve ever coached I would say,” said Blue of Johnson, an East Allegheny graduate. “She has great knowledge of the game. She’s an extension of myself in terms of reiterating or relaying any type of message I’m trying to get to the team. I’ve said this a ton since last season, ‘She thinks just like I think.’
“She yells out the same thing as me at the same time sometimes.”
Whatever the pair is often saying, it must be working.
Johnson, a 5-foot-6 point guard, broke Kennesaw State’s all-time scoring record when she netted 15 points in the Owls’ 109-53 victory against Coastal Georgia on Dec. 29. Heading into Thursday’s game against Austin Peay, she sat at 1,457 points after breaking the record of her former teammate, Alexis Poole, who set the university’s previous scoring standard at 1,452 points last season.
Now a fifth-year graduate student, Johnson also holds Kennesaw State’s all-time records for most career assists, steals, minutes played and assists in a single season.
“She really puts a stamp on what a student-athlete is,” Blue said. “Just to be a part of her accomplishing that, as well as the other records she has, has just been awesome.”
Add in that she maintains a 3.9 GPA, was Kennesaw State’s SGA president as a senior last year, is a member of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee and Sigma Gamma Rho sorority, and it’s easy to see how Johnson has become a critical component of her program and university community.
“I just kind of feel like whatever the team needs I’m willing to do and it’s the same thing with [Kennesaw State] and my high school,” said Johnson, who has already graduated with a degree in accounting and is working toward a master’s degree in business administration. “I’m always willing to do what needs to be done.
“It’s nice to be able to have an impact somewhere and say what I did here really matters,” she added. “I feel like in my years here I contributed to furthering the program.”
And that starts with her leadership capabilities.
Johnson was first named a team captain as a freshman by then Kennesaw State coach Agnus Berenato, who owns the most victories in Pitt women’s basketball history. She has transitioned her role as team leader after Berenato’s retirement to Blue’s program in its second season.
“It’s been a joy to be able to coach a player like her,” Blue said. “You take over a new program there’s not many times you can be awarded an all-conference player.”
Johnson is averaging 9.1 points per game this season, along with 5.5 assists, 1.6 steals and 3.2 rebounds per game.
“She’s a threat all over the floor,” said Blue of Johnson, who is also averaging a team-high 35.3 minutes per game. “She can shoot the three ball and she can get to the rim and as well as she can score the ball inside.”
The guard’s most critical aspect of her game, however, is in her ability to create scoring opportunities for her teammates, Blue said.
Kennesaw State graduate student guard Jah’Che Whitfield has flourished playing with Johnson, averaging a team-high 14.1 points per game, while shooting 48% from the field and 44% from 3-point range. Graduate student guard Lyndsey Whilby is also playing well, averaging 9.8 points per game, and junior guard Carly Hooks has also contributed for the Owls, chipping in 7.3 points per game.
“I am a mid-range, pull-up jumper kind of girl, and I always say I’m the assist queen because I always get a lot of assists,” Johnson said. “I do drive to the basket, but I’m on the smaller side, so I try to stay out of the big-people land under the basket.
“I really feel like the sky is the limit for our team,” she added, “and I feel like I really said that every year for our team, but this is one of the best teams, if not the best team, that I’ve had in my time here.”
Kennesaw State (4-8, 0-1 ASUN) has taken its lumps early this season, but there’s plenty of reason for optimism moving forward, Blue said.
The Owls learned from losses to Power Five conference foes Mississippi, Georgia Tech and Georgia, and have shown resilience by winning three of their past five contests, Blue said.
“We’re still building, this is year two for me,” she said. “We had a lot of additions with new players this season. We are still trying to find our way with a lot of inconsistencies.”
One constant is, of course, the presence of Johnson.
“My expectation is for her to just continue to lead this team the way she does,” Blue said. “Very rarely can you find a player that can impact a game without actually being in the game and she does that so well. She’s the heart and soul of our team.”
For Johnson, the goal is to win an ASUN championship, which would bring with it an NCAA tournament bid, while also being named first-team all-conference and receiving ASUN all-academic team honors.
“I really feel like we can finish in the top half of the conference, and once you get in the conference tournament anything can happen,” she said. “I really want to end on a winning season and on a winning note, and I feel like that’s something that our team can do.”
Johnson is also enjoying wrapping up her playing career with Gabi Legister, a 6-foot-2 senior forward from Chartiers Valley, and Gillian Piccolino, 5-foot-10 senior guard from Keystone Oaks. The three players were recruited to Kennesaw State by Berenato.
Legister is averaging 2.8 points per game off the bench, while Piccolino is chipping in 2.6.
“We all make sure to represent,” said Johnson of the trio’s ties to Western Pennsylvania. “There’s no confusing where we’re from, especially if it’s the three of us together.”