Johnson set to lead 'Canes into NCAA women's field

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Shenise Johnson was simultaneously shaking, crying and begging. Cell phone in hand, moments after walking out of one of her first summer workouts at Miami, she pleaded with her mother to buy her a plane ticket home.

Michelle Reeves flatly refused.

This happened in June 2008. In March 2011, the Hurricanes are still reaping the benefits.

If Miami is the nation's most surprising team this season, then Johnson may be the newest star in the women's game. One of only three players to rank among the nation's top 20 in scoring and steals - and the Atlantic Coast Conference's player of the year to boot - Johnson will lead Miami (27-4) into the NCAA tournament on Sunday against Gardner-Webb (23-10) at Charlottesville, Va.

It's the Hurricanes' first NCAA berth since 2004.

''A dream come true, honestly,'' Johnson said. ''I know that's so cliche, but that's a dream come true. I've watched this my whole life. Now I actually get the chance to perform in it. I'm blessed. I'm just so happy. I'm surrounded by great people. My mom is excited for us, my whole family is so excited. We're going to go out and wear that Miami on our chests.''

To think she almost never wore it at all.

Johnson remembers the details vividly. She graduated from Rush-Henrietta High School in Rochester, N.Y. on a Saturday night in June 2008, stayed up all night with her friends, then headed to the airport the next morning for an 8 a.m. flight to Miami. Expectations were high: She was a McDonald's All-American, a highly coveted player, and stunned many onlookers by picking the Hurricanes.

Days later, in a 5 a.m. conditioning session, she quit. Didn't want to play the game she loved, for some reason. Homesickness, frustration, fear, whatever it was, it lasted four days before she summoned the strength to face her team again.

''When I came back, it was pure hell,'' Johnson said. ''But I definitely think that was one of the most pivotal moments of my life.''

One of the most pivotal moments for a fledgling program, too.

Johnson's a key part - but not the only part - of Miami's rise. The Hurricanes have been totally rebuilt in recent years, taken their share of lumps along the way, but finished this season tied atop the ACC regular-season standings and have put together the second-most wins in program history.

If Reeves bought that plane ticket, chances are none of it would be happening.

''It happens every year,'' Miami coach Katie Meier said. ''Every kid who's got that fire, their transition is always difficult. She's not the first freshman that had a blowup and said they were quitting. And she's used that wisdom every year. But for her, I think it was a real big experience and part of why she's so special.''

Meier and Johnson clash during time-outs and practice at times, argue over philosophies and play calls, though it never escalates much past the bickering stage.

There's a reason: Each sees much of herself in the other.

Johnson was promised starting spots by several coaches in the recruiting process, complimented profusely by just about everyone who sat with her when she was in high school, got told repeatedly that she could be among the nation's very best. Meier went another way, only promising Johnson that if she came to Miami and listened, she'd get better.

The approach worked. Johnson picked Miami. The Hurricanes - who have a slew of talent like Riquna Williams and Morgan Stroman alongside Johnson - have soared since.

Before Johnson came to Miami, the Hurricanes were 9-21. Since: 13-17 when she was a freshman, 22-14 and WNIT finalists as a sophomore, and 27-4 so far this season.

''I came here to play for Katie Meier,'' Johnson said. ''She said if she got her kids in here, it would be a different program. I trusted Katie Meier. I trusted her with my life. I believe that she's a great woman. She's a woman of her word.''

The Hurricanes will have everyone back next season, but Johnson wants no part of what-might-be-coming talk. Nor is she that impressed by her resume: 19.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 3.2 steals per game, numbers that will almost certainly garner her All-American consideration.

For that matter, she doesn't even want to think about Oklahoma, the team Miami may meet in the second round. It's all about Gardner-Webb, a program Johnson hadn't heard of until the brackets came out earlier this week.

The only guarantee she'll make is this: Unlike that summer in 2008, Johnson won't quit on the Hurricanes this Sunday.

''We're not focused on G-Webb,'' Johnson said. ''We're focused on Miami. We don't care what they do. What we do, it's hard for everyone else to stop. So if we do what we do, and we do it great, they're going to have problems.''

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