Johnson, LSU seniors go out on top

The LSU Lady Tigers probably have another seven or eight games left in their 2004-05 season.

However, LSU played its final home game Sunday as the Lady Tigers defeated Florida 76-52 at the Maravich Center. In the process LSU clinched the program's first-ever outright SEC championship and bid adieu to four seniors as Tillie Willis, Florence Williams, Crystal White and most notably Temeka Johnson were honored in "Senior Day" ceremonies.

With a crowd of over 10,000 assembled, the throng of fans greeted the introduction of each senior with thunderous applause. The ovation for Johnson was deafening and last several minutes as the senior all-American hugged coach Pokey Chatman and waved to all of the well-wishers.

"I don't think I have let it all out," Johnson said afterwards. "I haven't got to that point yet. It got emotional when the (SEC Championship) banner dropped, not being able to share it with coach (Sue) Gunter was the emotional part."

Johnson fought back tears at the podium in the post game press conference when she spoke of what the current Lady Tiger squad meant to her. "I am happy to go out at home on top," Johnson said. "Not to take anything away from my former teammates that I have played with here, but this is a very special group."

Johnson developed a reputation in the SEC as being one of the quickest players ever to play in the league. Standing just 5-3, Johnson made up for what she lacked in height with speed and quickness, an uncanny ability to shoot a layup from the most awkward of positions and the art of dishing out assists. Johnson shattered Chatman's school record of 570 assists in the 2003-04 season and surpassed the SEC record of 822 assists in win earlier in the month at Mississippi State.

Chatman forced aside emotion when speaking of her spunky floor general, who tied her own single game record for assist with 15 dishes against Florida on Sunday.

"How much time do you have?" Chatman said when asked about Johnson. "The thing about Temeka is it's easy to judge her importance on the state sheet. That's the obvious. I'm looking at the 15 assists and eight steals in 38 minutes."

When playing with a teammate the caliber of Seimone Augustus, Johnson tends to be overshadowed. However, Augustus has said Johnson is now getting the respect she deserves after years of hard work. The 6-1 national player of the year candidate said she cannot visualize what Lady Tigers basketball will be like once Johnson moves on.

"It is tough to think about not having Temeka here next year," Augustus said. "She does a lot for this team. She hasn't gotten a lot of credit, I mean she is starting to now by breaking records and doing things like that, but I can't even think where we would be without her."

And while her presence on the floor is ever-apparent, Chatman said the special thing about Johnson is what she offers off the court.

"Most importantly, she's the glue when the staff is not around in the summertime, in the weight room, pre-practice, post-practice," Chatman said. "She's been tremendous in her effort and her leadership. It's a compliment when other coaches say she has been here for five years, when she's really only been playing three and a half."

Johnson seems to always rise to the challenge in big games. Two of her more memorable performances came against the Tennessee Lady Vols. In 2001-02, Johnson led an injury-riddled in an 81-80 upset of then No. 3 Tennessee. A year later, she earned SEC Tournament MVP honors in slaying those same Lady Vols 78-62 in Little Rock to give LSU the tournament crown.

While Augustus will most likely be credited for sparking the meteoric rise of Lady Tiger hoops, it was Johnson who came first and laid the groundwork for what is now the premiere team in all of women's college basketball.

"I think she means so much to this program, not just to me but to everybody," Augustus said. "She is a great player, a very unselfish player. She has meant a lot to this program as a basketball player. She does good things for her teammates and puts us in a good position to score at will. She is going to be missed here on the floor. But as far as off the court, she is like a big sister that I didn't have. I can look to her for anything, conversation, gas money; she is definitely special to me."

With Johnson at the twilight of her college career, it seems only fitting for the pint-sized point guard to go out as an SEC champion – and even maybe a national champion. While Johnson is lauded as the most unselfish player in the game doling out assist after assist, she admitted to being a bit selfish on this day.

"It is kind of hard for me to say that I don't want to share, I mean I just tied my own record sharing the basketball, but it is very important though," Johnson said when asked about the importance of winning the SEC title outright. "It is a great accomplishment for this program. We have come very, very far and are finally getting what we have earned and deserve and it is something that we really, really wanted."

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