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ALL-COUNTY GIRLS' BASKETBALL TEAM

Court Royalty

Johns-Richardson's Defense Paved Way to Championship Year

March 27, 2001|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The embodiment of defense, Veronica Johns-Richardson played a vital role in Troy winning its first Southern Section girls' basketball championship.

The Warriors, the top-ranked team in Orange County at the beginning of the season and the best team at the end, weathered a storm of controversy in December and responded with 18 consecutive victories, culminating in a Division I-A title with a win over the top-ranked team in the state, Ventura Buena.

Anyone who saw that game saw Johns-Richardson at her best. She was the county's dominant player the second half of the season--averaging 8.8 steals per game over the Warriors' last 19--and it wasn't even close.

In the end, Johns-Richardson clearly established herself as The Times' Orange County girls' basketball player of the year on a team that had a remarkable, albeit curious, season.

Despite losing a starting guard days before practice began, Troy opened the season ranked No. 1 in Orange County. Coach Kevin Kiernan resigned four games into the season over philosophical differences with his principal. That preceded a loss to San Clemente in Kiernan's absence.

After Kiernan returned, Troy lost three of five games in late December--to Artesia, after blowing a 13-point third quarter lead; to Esperanza, in which Johns-Richardson was ill and in which Troy led; and to Irvine in the final of the Orange County Championship, a game in which Johns-Richardson didn't play.

"We got really casual and depended on Veronica way too much," Kiernan said. "We did a lot of talking over the Christmas break, about our legacy, reevaluated why we were all here. We were like a born-again team after that."

Troy lost only once more, to Lynwood, in the second round of the state tournament.

Though Troy (28-5) finished the regular season ranked No. 4 in Orange County, few could argue that the Warriors weren't significantly better than that ranking at season's end.

And Johns-Richardson played a critical role.

"The most important thing she did was absorb the pressure that allowed Alicia Komaki and Amanda Livingston to develop and improve without the glare Veronica was under," Kiernan said.

"At the beginning of the season, her game suffered because of it. She was trying to do so much every day in practice, mentoring these other players, handling the ball 95% of the time. She was being asked to get six or seven rebounds, be the leading scorer, guard the other team's best player and, oh yeah, play 32 minutes because we don't have a sub for you.

"She had the burden on her, fairly or unfairly, until those other kids developed. You could see that as the season went on, how much better Komaki got and how that freed up Veronica to play better.

"She allowed us to develop the other players so we could beat Buena down the line."

Johns-Richardson's performance in the Division I-A championship against Buena was typical of what she did the previous two months. She scored 19 points, had five rebounds, five steals and five assists against an undefeated team Troy was given little chance to beat. She also guarded, and outplayed, Tennessee-bound Courtney Young.

She jumped into passing lanes and in front of opponents, deflected passes and was the ultimate pain in Buena's side. She, along with Komaki, raised Troy to a level it had never reached this season.

It was classic Johns-Richardson, who averaged 18.7 points, 8.9 assists and 7.8 rebounds over the last 19 games.

Over the full season, Johns-Richardson averaged 16.8 points, nine assists, six rebounds and 6.1 steals. She is a 5-foot-10 guard who played the point the first half of the season, until Komaki got up to speed.

Johns-Richardson, who will attend Colorado, shot 55% from the field, much of that the result of high-percentage shots created by Troy's defense, in which she played such a critical role.

"She's a fantastic defender, athletically gifted, and intelligent," Kiernan said. "She knows the rotations we want, she anticipates well, and is one play ahead in her mind, and that's what you look for in a great defender. That's the key. You can't teach that. That comes naturally. She knows where the ball is going."

Aside from her own coaches, maybe no one saw more of Johns-Richardson than Rick Albano, coach at Freeway League rival Sonora for six years.

"What really impressed me most about Veronica is she found a way to win every time we played," Albano said. "You'd think, 'We're doing a good job against her,' and then she'd do something to kill you, above and beyond hitting a three or making a layup. A steal. A rebound.

"When Buena made a run on Troy, Veronica hit the three-pointer. That's the dagger. Boom! She's not just a great shooter, but a timely shooter," he said. "She was never afraid of taking the big shot."

But that wasn't surprising. Not to Albano, Kiernan or those who watched her.

"Make no mistake about it," Kiernan said. "It's her team."

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