Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Cynthia Johnson Has Been the Constant on the Court Thru Lincoln's Move to Division II

By Rob Knox

At the nation’s oldest historically black college, where history is cherished, The Lincoln University senior guard Cynthia Johnson is creating memories that will be discussed with reverence when her outstanding career comes to a close.

The Lincoln University may have rebranded itself and expanded the venerable campus with new buildings and an athletic complex, but the one constant on the court has been Johnson, who’s been a link to the past, present and future of the Division II Lady Lions women’s basketball program.

Johnson arrived at Lincoln during the Lady Lions’ second year of their rough transition from Division III to Division II in which she tasted the bitter pill of losing.

Presently, as the affable 5 foot, 7 inch chemistry major prepares to become the sixth 1,000-point scorer in Lincoln women’s history, she can take pride in knowing that she has been a cornerstone in the program’s quest for a Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) conference championship.

The Lady Lions took another positive step in that direction as they extended their winning streak to three by storming back from a 16-point second half deficit to beat Philadelphia University in a non-conference contest for the first time in program history, 71-58, Thursday night at Manuel Rivero Hall.

With Johnson and sophomore guard Amani Clark leading the way, the Lady Lions closed the contest by scoring 15 of the final 16 points and limiting the Rams to 10 points. Down 48-32 with 12 minutes, 41 seconds remaining, Lincoln (9-7 overall) rallied from a second-half double-digit deficit to win for the third time this season.

Clark was spectacular in finishing with her first collegiate double-double of 19 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and three steals. Johnson netted 12 of her 16 points after intermission to raise her career total to 945. Zephrah Pam also had a double-double for the Lady Lions with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

Najah Jacobs (story on her coming later) led three Philadelphia players in double figures with 13 points. Monica Schacker and Megan Finn scored 10 points each. Mary Newell had 15 rebounds for the Rams (8-5).

With each victory, Johnson and the Lady Lions are raising the bar of excellence. Lincoln won three games in Johnson’s freshman year, seven in her sophomore year and 10 games last year. The struggles of the past have steeled Johnson, who has endured a coaching change and tragedy with the death of her grandmother last summer.

“My grandmother would be cheering with my mom and my dad during games in the stands,” Johnson said. “I’ll see her emotionally in the stands and even though I know she’s not there physically, I know I am making her proud. The loss of my grandmother has made me 10 times stronger than ever before. Those struggles helped me become a better leader because I know what happened in the past and I don’t want to experience that again.”

It’s something that third-year Lincoln head coach Jessica Kern has noticed about Johnson during games. Johnson plays with an unmatched fierceness on the court. She never takes any plays off and is always throwing her 5 foot, 7 inch frame into a forest of bigger and stronger bodies for her teammates. She briefly exited Thursday’s game when she had the wind knocked out of her after falling on a loose ball in the first half. She returned sporting a blue wrap on her arm and played well in the second half.

“She’s one of those women who plays with a chip on her shoulder because she remembers when it was tough,” Kern said. “I often tell her, I wasn’t here with her during those times and I wish I was because there are some games when you see her pressing so hard because it means so much to her.”

Lincoln women’s hoops have made plenty of history during the last year. First, the Lady Lions beat a Johnson C. Smith program that advanced to the 2012 NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional final last year in the CIAA tournament for their first postseason victory as a Division II program.

This year started off with a bang for Johnson.

Playing in her hometown of Baltimore, Johnson scored 18 points to help Lincoln rally from a 20-point second half deficit to beat Morgan State, 94-86, in overtime on the road, for its first win in program history against a Division I opponent. Lincoln started this week by beating 2012 Division II national champion Shaw, 62-59, for the first time in program history. In Johnson’s freshman year, Shaw beat Lincoln in two games by an average of 30.5 points.

“Beating Shaw made me feel more excited than ever before,” Johnson said. “All I remember about playing Shaw was going down there my freshman year and the gym was hot and a sweatbox. We lost by 30 or 40 points. So to beat Shaw gives me a lot of hope and belief that we can win the CIAA Northern Division title.”

That would be an awesome ending to Johnson’s remarkable career. Whether or not the Lady Lions season end with a championship is irrelevant because Johnson is already a winner because she has deepened the footsteps of those that played before her.

However, it’s the losing that has made Johnson appreciate all the success she and the Lady Lions are experiencing. Johnson is forever appreciative that former Lincoln women’s basketball coach Andy Haman took a chance on her and offered Johnson a scholarship when others didn’t.

“Definitely thanks to coach Andy,” Johnson said. “I will never regret coming here. He saw something in me and saw that I could help with the change of Lincoln. Granted he’s not here anymore, but he helped me become a better player. When he left, transferring was never an option for me. I wanted to stay here and help build the program. I am glad I didn’t transfer.”

Johnson has accomplished plenty during her time at Lincoln. She was named to all-CIAA rookie team as a freshman following a 3-24 season. This season, she was named to the preseason all-conference team. Johnson is Lincoln’s all-time leader in steals. Lincoln’s leading scorer at 11.9 points per game, Johnson has scored in double figures 13 times this season for the Lady Lions.

Her biggest accomplishment is probably preparing the next generation of Lincoln’s players. Clark is her protégé and Johnson has done a terrific job of grooming her to carry the torch of future success. Clark has scored in double figures in six of Lincoln’s last eight games. She’s set a career high in points three times during that stretch.

“She is somebody I definitely look up to because she’s always positive,” Clark said. “She has the mindset that there’s nothing she can’t achieve and she’s taught me a lot in terms of sharing her stories from her freshman year. I’ve seen how far she has come as a player and she’s always working hard every day. There’s nothing that she can’t do and that’s what I admire about her.”

The Lady Lions have 10 regular season games remaining, all against CIAA Northern Division opponents. They are riding a wave of sustained success that the program hasn’t experienced at this level. Johnson’s final home game against Elizabeth City State on Feb. 12 will definitely be an emotional experience.

“My underclassmen are listening to Cynthia and not just following her,” Kern said. “We are going to miss her tremendously. She has taken Amani under her wing and I am really looking forward to the amount of leadership Amani Clark is going to give us the next 2 seasons. When I got here, everybody told me she was an athlete and not a basketball player. Now she is a complete player. C.J. has not just grown with her talent but as a leader.”

The past is a humorous memory for Johnson. The present is a fun thrill ride. As for the future, Johnson will receive her degree in May. She will always be an important part of the Lincoln women’s basketball story that has a few more chapters to write this season.

“My career was definitely a milestone for me,” Johnson said. “It started off low and its ending on a high. I feel like that I grew into a leader that the team looks up to. I feel like Amani is phenomenal right now and when I leave, I know she is going to take over and make sure we keep going forward. I feel like I have had a great impact here. I look at the girls today and all I can do is smile.”

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm so proud of all that you done to help LU Women's program to compete on the D-2 level. And to endure thru the transition period and the adjustment in coaching staff is surely a tough task. Continue success in the classroom and on the court.

2:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

LU Women's program deserved to move to D-2 level. With more committed players like Cynthia, LU is on the way to D-1. It can happen so just keep recruiting the best and never give up on the girls. Good Luck at CIAA LU Women!!!

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