By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — All other things being approximately equal in a basketball game, the team with the most talented player often will prevail. So it was Thursday night at John Paul Jones Arena, where the University of Miami’s Shenise Johnson put on a magnificent performance.
If the 5-11 junior was off the mark from 3-point range, missing 5 of 6 attempts, she was otherwise nearly flawless in Miami’s 82-73 win over UVa. Johnson, who made 10 of 13 shots from inside the arc and hit all seven of her free throws, totaled 30 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals, with no turnovers, in the ACC opener for both teams.
“I have Shenise, and that’s why we won,” Hurricanes coach Katie Meier said.
Meier’s counterpart, Debbie Ryan, has no one comparable to Johnson this season, but freshman Ataira Franklin shows sign of becoming a special player for the Cavaliers (10-6).
A 5-11 guard from Bowie, Md., who blends superior athleticism with fundamental soundness, Franklin made her eighth straight start Thursday night. She finished with 15 points — matching her career high — and added a game-high 8 rebounds, 2 assists and a blocked shot.
Franklin was able to keep up with the high-tempo Hurricanes (15-1), but “other players have to step up and be able to defend at this level and at this pace,” Ryan said, “and that’s really where we run into some problems.”
Miami exploited UVa’s poor transition defense, scoring 14 fast-break points (while giving up only four). It didn’t help that the Cavaliers were coming off a poor practice.
“At this point,” Franklin said, “this is when the games get real. We can’t afford to have bad practices. There’s no more time left. Every second counts.”
Franklin, whose father and mother both played basketball at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was on the court for a career-high 36 minutes Thursday night, the most of the Cavalier. That total reflects her value to the team. It also worries her coach.
“Thirty-six minutes, that’s too long,” Ryan said. “And so there’s obviously some concern for her being ready to play at the end of the game. We gave her a little break there, but it might not have been enough time.”
A graduate of Riverdale Baptist School, Franklin played five minutes in Virginia’s season-opening win over Hofstra. Had Ryan been told at the start of the school year that Franklin would play 36 in game No. 16, the Wahoos’ longtime coach would not have believed it.
“But she separated herself very early with her maturity level and her ability to show what kind of heart and desire she has to be a very good player,” Ryan said. “She shows it every day in practice. I’ve not seen her have a bad practice, and I’ve actually seen her go two weeks before we knew that she had mono during conditioning, still winning races. Winning races. So that in itself kind of told me what kind of person she was, and it just seems like now we can’t play without her.”
For the season, Franklin is averaging 5.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists. She’s been Virginia’s most accurate 3-point shooter (43.5 percent) and is second on the team in blocks, with 10.
“I would say that Coach has stayed on me,” Franklin said Thursday night. “She just told me, ‘Keep defending, and then we’ll add things to your game as we go on.’ My comfort level has increased. I’m still trying to improve, and I still have to keep defending.”
Guard Paulisha Kellum, one of the team’s two seniors, led UVa with 19 points against Miami, and junior guard Ariana Moorer added 17. But junior forward Chelsea Shine, who came in as the Cavaliers’ leading scorer, had only 3 points in a season-low 10 minutes.
“I just felt like Chelsea wasn’t on her game tonight,” Ryan said. “We tried her a couple different times, and every time I tried her she just wasn’t doing what she normally does, and defensively she really wasn’t on her game.”
Another significant challenge awaits Virginia this weekend. UVa, picked to finish 10th in the 12-team ACC, plays Sunday afternoon at No. 24 Florida State. Ryan remains upbeat.
“We’ve seen some big changes in these players over the last couple of weeks, and we just have to get better at what we’re doing,” she said. “We have a really good team. It just has to be better down the stretch. When you have to have a rebound, you have to get a rebound. And they have to understand that. They have to be a little more aware of that particular fact. There’s a lot of players that are playing for us right now that didn’t really play a lot last year. It’s hard for them in terms of [understanding] the magnitude of things and how it ratchets itself up during the ACC.”
Before Thursday night, the ‘Hoos had won six consecutive games over the ‘Canes, the final two in overtime.
“I wanted that to change, and I’m really happy it did,” Meier said. “I’m also really happy that I have Shenise Johnson on my team. She is just unbelievable. I would like to say I made some really smart calls offensively, but the smartest thing I can do is give the ball to Shenise.”