MSU’s Johnson rediscovering passion for basketball amidst standout season

Minot State's Holly Johnson (23) shoots a 3-pointer during a women's college basketball game earlier this season. Sean Arbaut/Minot State Athletics

It had been a rough two years for former North Dakota Miss Basketball winner Holly Johnson.

Entering the 2015-2016 college basketball season, Johnson was coming off a stellar junior campaign at Division I North Dakota State University, where she averaged 12.2 points and seven rebounds per game. The 6-foot forward then spent her entire would-be senior season injured and elected to transfer to the University of North Dakota the following year.

Things didn’t go much better with the Fighting Hawks.

The Minot High graduate played just six games with UND and self-admittedly underperformed by her standards, averaging 2.3 points and 2.3 rebounds per game.

Nearly out of options, Johnson transferred to her hometown university, Minot State, in the summer to finish her collegiate career.

“I never thought I’d be back here for school,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t super excited about it at first, basketball was really the only thing on my mind. I just came in here expecting to get that done and nothing else.”

There has been a Johnson family basketball lineage at MSU, as both Holly’s father and sister played for the Beavers. Her sister was coached by longtime MSU icon Sheila Green Gerding, which worked to Green Gerding’s advantage when she tried to secure Johnson for this year.

Only, Green Gerding resigned shortly after the Beavers’ season ended, leaving Johnson’s future further in limbo.

“I didn’t know if that was a message telling me to shut the door or try to open a new one,” Johnson said.

Fortunately for the Minot native, newly hired MSU coach Mark Graupe accepted Johnson’s transfer request.

Yet, there were several unknowns initially with Johnson. Since she played six games with UND before leaving the team, it was unclear whether she’d have a full year of eligibility or just one semester. The NCAA sided with Johnson and awarded her a full year of eligibility. Which turned out to be a blessing for the Beavers, because it was fair to wonder how’d she perform after seeing limited action in two seasons.

Plus, playing a Summit League schedule for three seasons, Johnson was used to playing games on Thursdays and Saturdays with a day of rest in-between. In the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, games are played back-to-back on weekends.

“At the beginning of the season, I didn’t know if I was going to make it playing on Fridays and Saturdays,” Johnson said.

In her first nine games, the rust was evident. Johnson shot 40-of-103 from the floor for 38.8 percent and a paltry 4-of-25 from beyond the arc for 17 percent. The Beavers went 3-6 in those games.

“I definitely think my confidence was lacking at the beginning of the season the way I was playing and the way things ended at UND and NDSU,” Johnson said. “Those things took a toll on me. I had a lot of wonderful people in my life help me through those things and help me come back stronger.”

In a midseason practice, Graupe knew he had to implement something to help his impact transfer. The Beavers started running sets to get Johnson easy looks from the high post, one of her specialties. In MSU’s next game, Johnson shot 6-of-8 from the floor in a 61-58 win over St. Cloud State in December, which marked the start of her season turning around.

“I just knew we had to get Holly’s confidence back,” Graupe said. “Since then, her percentages are through the roof. It’s probably come from playing a full season after not playing for two years. But lately she has to be playing as well as anyone in the conference.”

In her last eight games, Johnson has made 52 of 103 shots from the floor for 50.5 percent and has made 17 of 31 3-pointers for a 54.8 shooting clip. MSU went 5-3 in those contests and Johnson earned an NSIC North Player of the Week award for her performance in two victories against Minnesota Crookston and Bemidji State last weekend. Johnson leads MSU and is fifth in the NSIC with 16.5 points per game and grabs 5.8 rebounds per night.

“It’s been a really fun year for me just to be back in a groove and playing in front of my hometown,” Johnson said. “It’s been really special. My goal from the beginning was to just come back and love the game again. My teammates have been a big part of that, you can tell we’re finally starting to mesh on the court in the second half of the season.”

Arriving back home with zero expectations, Johnson said she’s learned to appreciate being back in Minot with a strong support system and to be a part of a team that’s finally hitting its stride.

“I’ve been able to finally open my horizons a little bit since then and I’ve really enjoyed my time back here,” Johnson said. “I’m super close with my family, so having them being able to come to my games has been wonderful. Being back in my hometown, you really know everyone in the stands and that’s been really fun.”

With eight games remaining, the Beavers sit at two and a half games back of Minnesota Duluth for fourth place in the NSIC North. MSU’s goal since the beginning of the season has been to earn at least the fourth seed in the North Division, an objective Johnson thinks is still in reach if they take care of business against Winona State and Upper Iowa this weekend.

Once the basketball season is over, Johnson hopes to explore a basketball career overseas, preferably in Australia.

“It’s something that’s on my mind,” she said. “We have a lot of season left here and I’d like to finish strong first. But it’s something I’d like to take a look at. I’ve always wanted to be involved in the athletics world involved in coaching and that sort of thing. To be able to continue to play and have an experience where you go from knowing everyone in the stands to not knowing a soul would be pretty cool, I think.”

Garrick Hodge covers Minot State athletics, the Minot Minotauros and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @Garrick_Hodge.